Is God Christian? – 10.18.2020
[Romans 14:1-11 and 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5]
David Platt, a phenomenal missionary, pastor and author wrote a book a few years back called Radical, which I highly recommend. In the book, he tells the story about how time he was sitting with a buddhist leader and a muslim leader discussing religion. And one of them said, “We may have different views about small issues, but when it comes down to essential issues, each of our religions is the same.” And David listened for a while, and then they asked him what he thought. He said, “It sounds as though you both picture God (or whatever you call god) at the top of a mountain. It seems as if you believe that we are all at the bottom of the mountain, and I may take one route up the mountain, you may take another, and in the end we will all end up in the same place.” They smiled as he spoke, the buddhist leader and the Muslim leader. Happily they replied, “Exactly! You understand!” So then David Platt leaned in and said, “Now let me ask you a question. What would you think if I told you that the God at the top of the mountain actually came down to where we are? What would you think if I told you that God doesn’t wait for people to find their way to him, but instead he comes to us?” They thought for a moment and then responded, “That would be great.”
He replied, “Let me introduce you to Jesus.”
Today is the final sermon in our series Argument With An Atheist. We realized early on that this sermon series is not actually about arguing. It’s about love, and how each of us can better love and communicate with our friends and families who do not believe in God. So we broke it down into three questions. And to answer these questions – we’ve gone back and forth between scripture and examining the popular arguments for and against each position. First we asked, Does God exist? Then we asked is God good? And finally, here today, we are going to examine the question Is God Christian?
One thing we have discovered in this sermon series is that a lot of times these conversations go deeper than what they look like on the surface. When we talked about God’s existence, and we looked at popular reasons that people are atheists, and very few of them had anything to do with clever arguments. Then last week we looked at the problem of evil and we realized that people don’t ask these questions as am abstract philosophical thought exercise. They often ask questions about evil and God’s goodness as a response to pain that they are experiencing. And continuing that trend, today we’re going to find that rejection of the Christian God isn’t rooted in some clever argument or scientific fact – it’s usually based on personal experiences. I’ve found that for many atheists a gut rejection of Christianity is based on two things – the actions of God’s people and struggles to understand the bible. Atheists look at the way that Christians behave, and the book that we use – and often they cannot stomach either one. So let’s see what scripture has for us to help us grapple with this final angle to the atheist argument.
We’ll get started in Romans. Romans chapter 14 starts out, [read v.1]. Now we were in Romans back in June, but we need to revisit this passage because this message is so important. Accept other believers who are weak. One thing we need to understand is that people are watching us be Christians. We claim the name, we share the cute facebook post, we have the bumper stickers or t-shirts or whatever. People know we are Christians, and they are watching the way we behave. We represent God in the world, that’s part of our Christian witness. And the way we disagree with other people either helps or hurts our ability to reach people for Jesus. In American culture, the way Christians attack, and judge and scream their outrage – a lot of people watch us do that and think, “no thank you, I don’t want to have anything to do with that.” They think Christianity is all about hating non-Christians. Now, in our scripture Paul is talking about Christians who are attacking OTHER CHRISTIANS. And I know that’s hard to imagine, because the modern church is totally unified on all things. [laugh]. Non-Christians watch us. They watch us attack non-Christians, and judge them and hate them. Then they watch us attack each other. When we act with hatred and judgment in our hearts, it hurts our witness and makes it harder to share Jesus with someone.
It keeps going, [read v.2-6]. So Paul is dealing with two issues in this church in Rome. What you eat, and what day you have your sabbath. But here’s what I want you to pick up on – every generation will have their thing to argue about. Whether it’s infant baptism, grape juice or wine, women in leadership – every generation ill have their thing to argue about. We’ve talked about this before. The core of the gospel is that Jesus Christ is the son of God, savior of the world. You can find the basic, core teachings in documents like the Apostle’s Creed: born of the virgin Mary, Suffered under pontious Pilate, crucified, died and was buried, on the third day he rose. That’s the primary beliefs, the stuff all Christians agree with. But in other areas of life, there are what we call secondary teachings. Like food and sabbath, and on secondary issues Paul is saying, “Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them.” It’s bad when a Christian argues with a non-Christian, and does not reflect God’s love in that moment. That’s bad, but here Paul is dealing with the fighting going on inside the church! It’s not even arguing with a non-Christian. It’s two Christians, both of whom should know better, this is not how we treat people. And Paul’s writing this letter like “Come on! Knock it off. You know better than that! This isn’t even a fundamental belief.” Verse 10, [read it]. Some people make a hobby out of proving other Christians wrong. Have you seen this? Some people think that criticizing other Christians earn them brownie points. And Paul’s over here in Romans telling the Christian church, knock it off. Behave yourself, there are people watching you. You hurt your ability to share God’s love when you attack another Christian. Your credibility as someone who is shaped by the God of love is weakened. Especially if it’s on a secondary issue. The beginning of verse 20 says, [read it]. Some of this stuff, it’s okay to agree to disagree. And it is ALWAYS vital to love.
We have to remember the purpose of this sermon series. This is not about how to win an argument or figure out how to burn that mean atheist you met on facebook with a quippy one-liner that shuts down their argument. Our goal is not to argue better, but to love better. And ultimately, our goal is to find a way to share Jesus with someone. And you can’t do that if you tear apart the work of God over some small, secondary issue. No matter what we’re talking about, remember the Christian witness, the example we are to the world around us.
I mentioned at the beginning two reasons atheists have a problem with the Christian God, first – the behavior of God’s people. And second, the book. The Bible. Most of the arguments revolving around whether the thing that is out there is the Christian God, most of that centers on this book that we use. I once heard an argument from an atheist, I think it was in a tv show, who said, “even if there is some higher being out there, they would be so huge and powerful – they would have no interest in what we do. Me thinking about a God would be like a penguin thinking about nuclear physics. It’s just beyond me. The higher being certainly doesn’t care what I do.” And I’ve had that argument echoed by people in my real life. Some think, even if there is a God – why would God care about humans, about our morals, and laws – if God was the creator of the universe why bother with little ol’ humans? And when we look to scripture, the answer to that question is, “I don’t know! You’re right. We absolutely 100% agree. There is no way we could understand this higher being that’s out there, and yet God chooses to reveal Himself to us. That’s what the bible is – the revelation of who God is. The story of how God teaches humanity who he is. It’s truly amazing, and that’s why we do this thing called worship. WE are so grateful that this unknowable God has taken an interest in us. He cares about you deeply. He cares about what you do, what you say, who you are. He gave us this book to guide us. That’s why we call it God’s word.
Our second scripture tells us, [read v.14-16] Christians believe that there’s no way we can understand the thing that’s out there, but the bible is the account of God teaching us all about who and what he is. That’s why this book is so important to us. We learn all about God, and then God uses it to prepare and equip us to do every good work. But let’s take a second and look at some of the popular reasons why so many people reject the bible. The first argument used against the bible is that Christians have used the bible throughout history for terrible things. Christians have oppressed women, led wars, approved slavery, abused the family structure, manipulated society to do what they want. The first reason atheists throw out the bible is to point to what it has been used for in the past. This is a powerful book, and that power is not always used for good. But what our scripture lesson is telling us this morning is that, that is not what the bible is supposed to be used for. The Christian response is to admit our mistake. The church has a nasty history, and there’s no point in denying it. Terrible people have done terrible things by twisting the words found in these pages. But it is not the bible’s fault when a human misuses it. It breaks my heart that these words have been used in that way – but we have to own it. Denying it doesn’t help us. I once had someone ask me, is the bible sexist? And the answer is NO – but it has been used in that way. To move forward and use the bible in healthy ways, the way 2 Timothy talks about, requires us to first admit the mistakes of the past. Own it, so that it doesn’t cast a shadow on our witness.
The second big complaint I see about the bible is that even with good people studying it, it’s full of contradictions and factual errors. For example, one of the most popular is evolution versus creation. Some people read Genesis and see the story of the seven days and they think, “God made the world in seven 24 hour cycles, seven days, and things just appeared when God spoke. The other side looks at all this scientific evidence that we’ve found all around the world – things like dinosaurs and other fossils that makes us think the world is really really old and that it was created gradually, over hundreds of millions of years. So which is true? Science or religion, creation or evolution, evidence or faith? This is where our passage from Romans comes in handy. We need to realize science and religion are not against each other. Science looks at the world and seeks to answer the question of “how.” Science riddles out the behind the scenes mechanics of the universe. Religion looks at the world and seeks to answer the question “why.” These two questions compliment each other. It’s not either/or. Truth is, the question doesn’t even matter. Could God have created the world in seven literal 24 hour cycles? Yes, absolutely. Could God have created the world over millions of years which was described in a metaphor as seven days? Yes, absolutely. Either way, God is God and we don’t need to treat one another poorly because of that.
The “factual errors” in the bible are mostly a misunderstanding of what the bible is. Religion answers the question “why.” For example, there are contradictions in the bible. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are both creation stories, but they are not in the same order. Humans show up before animals in the second version. Another contradiction comes from the gospels. When Peter betrays Jesus, in the book of Mark the rooster crows twice, but in the other gospels they say the rooster crows once. Now if you’re reading the bible as just a history book, if you’re reading the bible like a text book trying to answer the question “how” – these conflicts are a really serious problem, and so people throw out the bible and God. But our response is to remember what the bible is for. The bible answers the question “why.” The bible is so much more than a text book, or a history book. It has history in it, but there is so much more to it. 2 Timothy tells us [read v.16] The bible is inspired by God and it is useful. It corrects us when we are wrong, and teaches us to do what is right. Things that seem like factual errors or contradictions don’t stop us, they just invite us to look at a deeper level.
So first they talk about how it has been misused, and we need to own that, admit mistakes in the past and do better in the future. Then they talk about the conflict of science and religion, factual errors and contradictions – and what we find is that if it looks like a contradiction – we are invited to look deeper. The last argument I’ve seen against the bible is very simple. The bible is old! Like super old. It was written by people thousands of years ago for a different time, a different world. It no longer applies to our world today. And what’s funny is that the way we response is again to start by agreeing with them. You’re right, the bible IS old. It WAS written by people a long time ago. That’s why we study it so much. That’s why we have sermons. The very first sermon ever recorded comes from Nehemiah chapter 8, verse 8 [read it]. A guy gets up, reads the scripture and then explains it to the people. That’s my job, in a nutshell. To take this book and explain it – in this world, in this time. The truth, real truth, divine truth, has no time limit, and maybe we need to switch up some metaphors to help people understand, but it is still inspired by God and useful. That’s why we have devotions, bible studies, all that stuff. We are working together to understand this book, because this is what we’ve got. This is what God gave us to work with to grow closer to him. You’re right – it IS old, that’s why the modern church spends so much time teaching it. Alright, so that’s how people reject the bible and how we as Christians can respond to that.
Let’s go back to Timothy for just a quick second, chapter four starts off like this, [read v.2]. Patiently correct, rebuke and encourage. This is how we hold both compassion AND conviction at the same time. It echoes our teaching from Romans (and it should, it was probably the same guy who wrote it). Patiently correct. This is SO vital in our social media world. It’s important to correct people, to reach out and lovingly guide someone back to the truth – but it must be done with patience. So many arguments that I see in the modern world, especially on social media, so many of them hinge on a lack of patience. We’re trying to find a quick response, a snappy come-back, but if you slow down, try to understand them, patiently correct them – it makes all the difference. Patiently correct, rebuke and encourage. Rebuke, if you don’t know – means to reject what someone is saying or doing. It’s the old time equivalent of “calling someone out” – hey, what you’re doing is wrong. But look at how he pairs it. Rebuke and ENCOURAGE. Too many of us read that as “rebuke and DESTROY.” Here’s the thing – what Paul is getting at is that when we reach out to correct someone who is wrong, it must be done with their good in mind. We must seek to encourage them. It is not enough to just call them out, to just attack people and tell the world how terrible they are. This is wrong, let me help move you towards something better.
Verse 3 [read v.3-4]. Does this sound familiar? They will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. Can you imagine people, instead of trying to learn from or maybe even correct a Pastor, instead they just move over to the other church across town? Like church shopping? Or another ridiculous example, can you imagine MULTIPLE news networks. Like, I don’t know, something crazy, like a news network designed for conservatives, and a different news network designed for liberals, and they just tell each side what they want to hear. And maybe even they would call the other networks fake news. A time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. This goes WAY beyond the atheist/Christian conversation. Then Paul brings it home in verse 5. [read it] The rest of the world is just going to seek after what they want to hear, they don’t search for the truth – but you must keep a clear mind in every situation. How do we do that? Patiently correct, rebuke and encourage.
The good news this morning is that God reveals himself to us. God comes down the mountain. We ask if God is Christian, and the answer is yes – the higher power, that thing that is out there, God is the God of the bible. He has revealed himself many times over history, and he has given us a resource to help us understand Him and how he wants us to live in this life. God reveals himself to us, and it’s our job not to mess it up. Do you notice how so much of the conversation with an atheist revolves around the ways Christians have done it poorly in the past? Mistakes have been made, but we can do better. We can bring people the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ with patience, correction and encouragement.
I said at the beginning of this sermon that atheists most often reject the Christian God because of how Christians behave, and because they don’t understand the book we have. And at this point some of you might be thinking – that’s right, people make mistakes bringing Jesus with judgment or hatred – so I just won’t even try. Some of us have let the past paralyze us, we’re so afraid of doing it wrong that we don’t even try anymore. Some of you, for all your faith, have never tried to bring someone into a relationship with Jesus Christ – even though that’s the most important relationship they will ever experience. (That’s the rebuke, me calling you out.) But I want to encourage you this morning. I struggle with it too. As a pastor, I have seen and heard many of the horror stories of religion gone wrong. It can be awkward or intimidating to talk to someone about Jesus. But the heart of Methodism is that the methods change, the message does not. Some people try to change the message, like Timothy talks about, people who go around in search of a teacher who will tell them what they want to hear. But our goal is never to change the message, only the method. As Methodists we are always in search of a new method to bring someone to Jesus. And we have the benefit of history! We can learn from the mistakes that have been made, and engage in a better way. Follow the guidelines coming from Romans – don’t argue about secondary things. Don’t tear apart the work of God, and remember your Christian witness – people are watching, and you represent Jesus out there. Follow the guidelines coming from Timothy – patiently correct, rebuke and encourage. This is how we can turn an argument with an atheist into a fruitful conversation about the Son of God, savior of the world.
Conclusion Is God Christian? Of course not. Christian means follower of God, so that doesn’t really make any sense. But the real question is, “is that thing that is out there, is that the Christian God? The god of the Christians?” And what I hope you have seen today is that question says a LOT more about us, and our witness in the world than it does about God. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you accept other believers, even in their weakness. May your witness in the world reflect the love of God. May you patiently correct, rebuke AND encourage – so that more people can come to know Jesus. Amen