Learning to Float

learn-to-floatJesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).

If I were making a list of all the things I wish Jesus had never said, this saying would certainly be on the list. Not because it’s so bad, or so hard, but because it makes people think of faith as a quantity, as something you can have more or less of.  Usually people assume they have less and wish they had more. If they had more they could move mountains, right?

And sometimes there are mountains to be moved.

In Luke 17 the disciples beg Jesus, “Increase our faith!” but he says to them there essentially what he says to them here: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” And I don’t know that I’ve heard it this way before but when I read that passage this time around it almost sounded as if Jesus were saying, “Increase your faith? You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”

And that’s what I want to talk about today.

In a book called The Heart of Christianity New Testament scholar Marcus Borg devotes an entire chapter to faith. He claims that in Western Christianity faith has come to mean holding a certain set of “beliefs,” or “believing” a set of statements to be true. For most people, being a Christian means believing that there is a God, believing that the Bible is the revelation of God, and believing that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died for our sins.

Borg (who grew up Lutheran in North Dakota) acknowledges that “for some Christians the list would be longer: believing that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God; believing in Genesis rather than evolution; believing that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he walked on water, that he raised the dead, that he himself was raised from the dead in a physical bodily form, and that he will come again someday. Sometimes the beliefs become very specific, Borg writes: believing in infant baptism instead of adult baptism (or vice versa); believing in “the Rapture”; believing (or not believing) in Purgatory. The list goes on and on, but as you have probably experienced for yourself believing “the right things” is very important to Christians.

But here’s the problem:

All this emphasis on belief can quickly turn faith into a matter of the head rather than the heart. And Marcus Borg would insist that it has happened rather quickly.

Back in the Middle Ages the word orthodoxy meant “right worship” (in fact, that is the literal meaning of the word). But during the Protestant Reformation it came to mean “right belief,” partly because all those Baptists, and Methodists, and Presbyterians were still figuring out what they believed. Should we baptize infants or adults? Is communion a sacrament or an ordinance?

And then there was this other thing, the Enlightenment, that changed the way we understood truth. In the Middle Ages no one questioned the story of Jonah and the Whale. It was in the Bible: of course it was true! But during the Enlightenment people began to ask: Could there really be a fish big enough to swallow a man? And could a man really live after three days in its belly? The only truth that counted was that which could be verified scientifically; in other words, truth was replaced with fact (which is a much smaller word).

And so, after being run through the wringer of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, faith has come to mean believing the right things, and believing them no matter what, even if they are not scientifically verifiable.  But it was not always so.  Marcus Borg helps us by looking back to the Middle Ages, and four different Latin words for faith:

1. The first is assensus, from which we get the English word assent, and it means pretty much what you would expect it to mean: giving one’s intellectual assent to a claim or proposition, that is, believing that it is true. The opposite of this kind of faith is “doubt” in its milder form and “disbelief” in its stronger form. For example: you might go from doubting that a fish could swallow a man to disbelieving it altogether. Marcus Borg says that when he was a teenager he had those kinds of doubts and prayed, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” Since then he has wondered, “Is this really what God wants from us: our intellectual assent to a long list of theological propositions? Our heads rather than our hearts?” He also notes that you can believe all the right things and still be in bondage, still be miserable, still be unchanged—that faith as assensus doesn’t have much transformative power. And yet there are some things we can and should affirm. At the bare minimum being Christian means a) affirming the reality of God, b) the utter centrality of Jesus, and c) the centrality of the Bible.

2. The second Latin word for faith is fiducia, and the closest English equivalent is fiduciary, which may mean something to the bankers and lawyers in the room, but doesn’t mean much to me. A better word would be trust, or the phrase “radical trust.” As Soren Kierkegaard might have said, “Fiducia is like floating in an ocean of God’s grace.” Borg says that once, when his wife was teaching an adult Sunday school class, she asked if anyone had ever tried to teach a child to swim. Several hands went up. She asked, “What was the hardest thing about it?” And they all agreed: getting the child to relax and float, to trust the buoyancy of the water. Fiducia is learning to trust the buoyancy of God, and the opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt but anxiety, or worry. In the middle of that storm on the Sea of Galilee, when they were afraid their boat was going to sink, Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Where is your faith?” A few chapters later he says, “If God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not clothe you, you of little faith?” In both cases he is talking about faith as fiducia: radical trust.

3. The third Latin word is fidelitas, which can be translated as fidelity, or faithfulness, specifically, faithfulness in our relationship to God. It means what faithfulness does in a marriage—being faithful to God in the same way you might be faithful to a spouse. The opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt or disbelief, but unfaithfulness or adultery. Another biblical word for this kind of unfaithfulness is idolatry—giving one’s ultimate loyalty and allegiance to something other than God. Borg says, “As the opposite of idolatry, [this kind of] faith means being loyal to God and not to the many would-be gods that present themselves to us. Christian faith means loyalty to Jesus as Lord, and not to the seductive would-be lords of our lives, whether the nation, or affluence, or achievement, or family, or desire.”

4. The fourth Latin word for faith is visio, and this one is fascinating. As you might guess, visio is a way of seeing “the whole,” a way of seeing “what is.” And there are three ways of seeing it.

a. One is to see reality as essentially hostile, as if everyone and everything really were out to get you. It may not surprise you to learn that there have been some forms of popular Christianity through the centuries that have viewed reality this way, as if God himself were out to get us, and that—unless we offered the right sacrifices, or said the right prayers, or did the right things—he would.

b. In the second way of looking at reality it is essentially indifferent. Someone with this view might say, “The universe is made up of swirling force fields of matter and energy, but is neither hostile to nor supportive of our lives and dreams.” And if God is the one who brought it all into being, he has long since stopped intervening or even caring. If you look at reality this way, you might not be as defensive as in that other view, but you might become rather selfish, looking out only for yourself and those you love, since obviously no one else is.

c. In the third way of looking at reality it is essentially nourishing and life-giving. It has brought us and everything else into existence. It is filled with wonder and beauty. It loves us and cares about us. This is the reality Jesus was talking about when he said, “Look at the birds of the air, the flowers of the field.” God feeds them. God clothes them. God sends his life-giving rain on the just and the unjust.

Can you see what a difference faith as visio could make in your life? What a difference there would be in seeing reality as essentially hostile, essentially indifferent, or essentially nourishing and life-giving? This last way of looking at reality can lead to the radical trust we talked about earlier. As Borg says, “It leads to the kind of life we see in Jesus and the saints, known and unknown. Or, to use words from Paul, it leads to a life marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love.”

There they are: four Latin words for faith—assensus, fiducia, fidelitas, and visio—and you may have noticed that all but the first are relational words. Fiducia describes a relationship of radical trust. Fidelitas describes a relationship of love and loyalty. Visio describes a relationship of life-giving nurture. Assensus is the only one that means giving our intellectual assent to a set of theological propositions and, as I said, that’s important.

But it may not be the most important thing.

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” And so we try to increase our faith. We try to believe more and doubt less. We try to believe things that are, frankly, unbelievable. And we do it because there are mountains that need to be moved.

But what if that’s not what Jesus meant?

What if he meant, “You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”  Because here is the truth: that little “mustard seed” is found only five times in the Gospels. It’s mentioned twice in reference to faith, as in, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed.” But the other three times Jesus uses it he talks about how, if it’s planted in the ground, this tiny seed can become a huge bush, even a tree, in which the birds of the air can build their nests. A mustard seed, in other words, is something small that can grow big—if you put it in the ground. But if you put it in a Ziploc bag, and bury it in the bottom of your sock drawer?

That mustard seed will always stay the same size.

What if Jesus is trying to tell us this: that we don’t need a lot of faith, we only need the tiniest little speck. But we need to put our faith in the right place—not in ourselves and our ability to believe—but in God, the One who gives us life and nurtures it, the One who loves us like a faithful spouse, the One we can trust completely, and, yes, the One who can and does move mountains. Let us put our mustard seed of faith in him; let us tend it and nourish it; let us water it with worship, study, service, and prayer;

And then watch it grow.

I keep thinking about Marcus Borg’s wife trying to teach her son to swim, helping him as he struggles and thrashes in the water, telling him over and over again to relax. And then I picture him finally listening to her, hearing her, and obeying her—stretching himself out on the surface of the water like you would stretch yourself out on a king size bed, feeling it beneath him lifting him up, holding him, even as his mother’s arms are beneath him, supporting him. I can almost hear him gasp with wonder as he realizes that he can float, and almost see the smile on his face as he lies there on the water with his eyes closed, rocking gently back and forth as his mother chides,

“O, ye of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

—Jim Somerville ©2015

A Sermon for Every Sunday

Well, here’s something you may not have known:

For several months now I have been working on a project called “A Sermon for Every Sunday,” which was conceived as a way to help small, struggling churches that don’t have preachers, but has evolved to include churches in the interim, house churches, Bible studies, small groups, Wednesday night programs, and Sunday school classes.

The idea is simple enough: with some help from my friend David Powers I have been recording sermons by some of America’s best preachers for every Sunday of the liturgical year, so that when those small, preacherless churches get to the Third Sunday of Advent (for example) they can simply push a button and hear a sermon from Bishop Michael Curry (above).  Other “Every Sunday” preachers are William Willimon, Brian McLaren, Lauren Winner, David Lose, Brian Blount, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Andrew Foster Connors, Grace Imathiu, Rolf Jacobson, Gary Charles, and Karoline Lewis.

How does it work? Here’s a possible scenario, straight from the website:

Imagine that the bright young pastor of a country church is called to a church in the big city…

The congregation is faced with a decision: do we call another pastor?  Can we afford to?  They hear about “A Sermon for Every Sunday,” a way to get America’s best preachers into America’s small churches, house churches, Bible studies and small groups–on video.  They decide to give it a try, at least in the interim.

With the money they save they buy a big, flat-screen TV and a quality DVD player.  They put the lectern on one side of the chancel and the TV on the other until the two are nicely balanced.  Some of the older members shake their heads.  They never thought they’d see such a thing in church, but again, it’s only for the interim.

On that first Sunday the English teacher at the local high school–a member of the church–leads the service.  She opens with the call to worship, announces the hymns, invites members of the congregation to read scripture and say prayers.  When it’s time for the sermon she reads the Gospel lesson and then nods to the high school student who has downloaded the video from the web site.  He pushes a button, and the congregation waits, breathlessly.

What they see is high-definition video of one of America’s best preachers, looking straight into the camera and preaching the Good News.  It’s as if he is talking only to them.  The sermon lasts 12-15 minutes, and when it’s over the congregation responds with a murmur of approval.  The English teacher steps back to the lectern and says, “I had a chance to watch the sermon last week, and I was thinking about how it applies to our context…”  She takes a few minutes to make some connections between what the church has just heard and what they live with every day, and then she moves on with the service.

When she greets them at the back door later even those older members have to admit, it’s been a good day in church.  And they want to know:

“Who’s preaching next week?”

Click on the link below to visit the website, and then, if you feel inclined, share it with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or simply by word of mouth.  I’d like to make sure that the people who could benefit from such a service would have access to it before the launch date on November 28.

It may seem a little crazy—but in times like these, when churches are struggling and technology is everywhere—maybe not so crazy after all.

Click HERE to find out more.


Which Jesus Will We Give Them?

cappucino and cross“When you make up your mind that you will do whatever it takes to get people to come to church, then you will get just the kind of church you deserve: a congregation of fickle religious consumers who will leave you as soon as the church next door opens an espresso bar.”

That was one of the better lines from my recent, two-part sermon series called “The End of the Road.” I had been talking about how the church in America is in decline, and how some church leaders seem willing to do whatever it takes to get people back into the pews and their dollars into the plates. I followed it with this story:

Not long after I graduated from college I was I was called to serve as a part-time youth minister at a small church in Kentucky. I wanted to have the biggest and best youth group in town and one of the first things I did was weigh every kid who came on Wednesday night because it sounded so much more impressive to say that we had a 1,136 pound youth group than to say we had a group of fifteen kids. I did everything I could to increase attendance: we started our own radio station, held the “World’s Biggest Kite Contest,” and made regular trips to the amusement park. But I remember the day it changed for me, when I called to invite one of our youth to something we were doing and he said no thanks, that he and his friend were planning to go to a movie. And that’s when it hit me that I could never compete: that these kids had all the entertainment they needed and a whole lot more, and the only thing I could give them that they weren’t getting everywhere else…was Jesus. So, I made up my mind to do that—to give them Jesus—and to keep it up even if the youth group withered away to less than a thousand pounds.

In one way or another, that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.

But what I said in the sermon is this: that “giving people Jesus” can mean more than one thing.

I was reminded of that when I was at the BGAV meeting in Fredericksburg recently. There we were—a thousand Baptists from Virginia all gathered together in a single room. You would think that we all held the same views, wouldn’t you? But as one speaker after another talked about Jesus I could tell that we thought about him in different ways, and maybe that shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. After all, there are four Gospels in the New Testament, which means that we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. And then there are Paul’s letters, which are more about the risen Christ than the earthly Jesus, and about what his death and resurrection mean for us. And then there are the other writers, like Peter, James, and the author of Hebrews, who each have their own perspective. And finally the Book of Revelation, in which the risen Christ appears with “hair as white as wool and eyes like flames of fire” (1:14). So if I’m going to “give them Jesus” I have to ask: which Jesus am I going to give them?

Because I think we tend to “cut and paste” when it comes to Jesus. We take what we like about him from the Bible, and from the hymn book, and from the pictures that hang in our Sunday school classrooms, and the songs we learned as children, and we put them all together to make this composite picture we carry around in our heads, and that’s “our” Jesus. Sometimes the confused looks I see on your faces when I’m preaching are not because you don’t understand what I’m saying, but because “my” Jesus doesn’t look like “your” Jesus. My Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom, and urging people to join him in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. Your Jesus may be saying, “Go, make disciples of every nation,” or, “Come to me, all you who are weary,” or, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I was thinking about that on the way home from Fredericksburg when it occurred to me that even if you put all these cut-and-paste images together you still get the picture that God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us. I said it out loud: “God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us.” And something about that rang so true I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

Stage One: to Love Us. In John 3:16 we learn that God loved the world so much he gave his only son. I’ve pointed out to you before that the word world is often used in a negative way in the New Testament, as in, “Love not the world, nor the things of the world” (1 John 2:15). We are led to believe that the world is a sinful, dirty, and unrepentant place, and yet God loves it anyway; he loves it so much he gave his only son for it. And if you read the Gospels even casually you can see that the son he gave loves the world just as much as he does. Jesus is always spending time with the sinners and the tax collectors, always hanging out with the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. God sent him to love the world and he loved it, he loved it enough to die for it, which makes me think that as the body of Christ we should love it, too. What if we believed that our first responsibility, as Christians, was simply to love people? Not to judge them, or condemn them, or convert them, but to love them? Is this the way Jesus approached his ministry? Did he think, “I’ve got to begin by loving the world, because that’s what my father sent me to do”?

Stage Two: to Save Us. Jesus himself says that he didn’t only come to love the world, but “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). I’ve told you before that the word save in the Gospels is a bigger word than we sometimes imagine. It doesn’t usually mean to save someone from hell; it usually means “to help,” “to heal,” “to make well,” or “to make whole.” More often than not, this is how Jesus used it. He said to the woman with the flow of blood, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to that one leper who came back, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to Blind Bartimaeus, “Your faith has saved you.” In other words it has helped you, healed you, made you well, and made you whole. What if we believed the second responsibility of Christians was to do that? To help people, to heal them, to make them well, and to make them whole? One of the most important ways we can do that is to let people know that their sins can be forgiven—those things that fill them with guilt and shame, that cripple them and keep them from becoming all God made them to be. They need to know that all those things can be forgiven, forgotten, washed away, so they can move on to Stage Three.

Stage Three: to Change Us. Marcus Borg says that every major religion is about transformation, and Christianity would be at the top of that list. Jesus didn’t think it was enough to save us: he wanted to change us, to help us become what we have it in us at our best to be. And Paul, perhaps more than any other writer in the New Testament, takes up that charge. In dozens of different ways in his letters he describes what a Christian life might look like. In Galatians 5, for example, he talks about giving up the works of the flesh in favor of a life full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—the fruit of the Spirit. Those of you who have tried it know what a constant struggle that can be: the flesh keeps doing its work. And yet, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called to keep on trying, keep on changing, until we grow up at last into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph. 4:15). And well before we get there we may be ready for Stage Four.

Stage Four: to Send Us. After Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to his disciples and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). As I’ve said before, this is the moment when the disciples became apostles: when they were no longer “learners,” but “sent ones.” And you’ve also heard me say that I think Jesus intends for us to do the same: to graduate from Sunday school and go out into the streets, to be sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we need to give up gathering for Sunday morning Bible study, but when we stand before Jesus I don’t think he is going to ask us where Paul went on his second missionary trip; I think he’s going to ask us where we went on ours. That’s what KOH2RVA was all about, and that’s what we hope to accomplish with KOHx2 as we look for partners who will work with us to bring heaven to earth, in Richmond and around the world. We believe that we too have been sent, that we are on a mission, and that we can’t give up until it is accomplished.

Which stage are you in? Which stage are you in today? Which stage will you be in tomorrow? And which stage will that person be in you encounter on the street, the one who shuffles along with her head down, wondering if there’s any reason to go on?

Which Jesus will you give her?

Full Disclosure

At the end of Sunday’s sermon, the one about Jesus cleansing a leper, I referred to my tenth grade yearbook picture. Several people have asked to see it, and although it pains me to post it (I’ve saved it under the file name “Yikes!”) here it is, along with the last few paragraphs of the sermon. Be gentle.


Last week some of my old classmates from Sherman High School in Seth, West Virginia, caught up with me on Facebook.  They were happy to find me.  They didn’t know what had happened to me.  And they have been very, very kind.  But as I looked through some of the yearbook pictures they had posted on that site I began to realize why they hadn’t heard from me: those two years at Sherman were some of the most painful in my memory. 

My dad, as I’ve told you, was a kind of missionary to the desperately poor in that county and I felt like a missionary kid.  We lived in a house with no running water and no indoor plumbing, which meant that I went to school most days looking kind of rumpled and smelling sort of…unwashed.  And I was a little kid!  I went to high school a year early and didn’t get my growth spurt until two years later.  I was about five feet two with teeth that seemed way too big for my mouth and the worst haircut I’ve ever had in my life.  When I looked through those yearbook pictures I remembered those tall, handsome, confident boys, and those pretty, outgoing, giggly girls, and suddenly there I was, looking like a scared rabbit, trying to hide my face under my crooked bangs when the photographer took the picture.     

When I look closely I can almost see the pain in those eyes. 

But I would guess that I’m not the only one in this room who had that kind of experience in high school.  In fact, there may be a third of you who don’t have your yearbook picture hanging on the wall at home.  Those are such vulnerable years, and we feel so tender; one unkind word can cut us to the quick.  “If you want to you can make me clean,” the leper says to Jesus, and maybe all he really means is, “If you want to you can save me from being a social outcast, you can bring me into the community, you can help me find a place.”  And Jesus says, “I want to,” and then he reaches out and touches the leper.  Who knows how long it had been since anyone offered to do that?  But in that moment, in that action, his leprosy is cured.  He is made clean.  Jesus told him not to say anything about it but he couldn’t help himself. 

It was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Think about those people, not only in high school but in every church, who have trouble fitting in, who are almost terrified to visit a Sunday school class where everybody already knows everybody, and where there aren’t any available seats.  Think about how hard it is for some people to walk up the front steps of this church for the first time, not knowing if they will be made to feel welcome or turned away at the door.  Think about those people who have failed at life, who have lost a job, who have been divorced; people who are struggling hard and who need a home; people who have been pushed to the fringes of society because in one way or another they have become “unclean.” In this first chapter of his Gospel I think Mark is being very deliberate in showing us three different things that have no place in God’s kingdom: 1) evil, 2) illness, and 3) exclusion.  Jesus takes his stand against all of these.  He drives out the unclean spirits (vss. 21-28), he cures those who are sick (vss. 29-39), and he welcomes the outcasts (vss. 40-45).  And when he does those things God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Did Jesus Really Walk on Water?

When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea (Matthew 14:23-25).

When I was a boy we used to visit my grandmother’s home in Blowing Rock, North Carolina.  She lived in a house on a hill with a big front porch and a breathtaking view of GrandfatherMountain.  At the bottom of the hill was a clear, mountain stream that rushed over smooth, round rocks, and it was there, in one of the still pools at the side of the stream, that I first saw something walk on water.  It was a bug, a “water strider” to be exact, but as I watched it make its way across the pool my eyes grew wide with wonder.  How did it do that?

My brother Scott explained:  “Surface tension,” he said.  Something about the way the water molecules held together.  If you were small enough and light enough, like that bug, the surface of the water would behave like a sheet of Saran Wrap; you could just walk from one side to the other.  I was fascinated.  I filed that information away in my brain so that someday, when someone asked me how bugs could walk on water, I could lift my chin just the way Scott had, put on one of my most knowledgeable looks, and say “surface tension.”

On the surface, there is some tension between what we read in this passage from Matthew 14 and what we see in the world around us.  Matthew says that Jesus walked on water, and that—for a little while at least—Peter did too.  I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a man walk on water.  I saw my cousin water-ski barefoot once, but that’s not the same thing.  That’s called hydroplaning, when something is moving so fast that it skims across the surface of the water.  It seems to defy gravity in the same way an airplane lifts off the runway and into the sky by skimming on a cushion of air.  But if that airplane came to a sudden stop it would drop from the sky, and if that boat had come to a sudden stop my cousin would have sunk like a stone.

This is what observation has taught us, this is what experience has taught us, but this story from Matthew 14 wants to teach us something else, and on the surface at least is seems to want to teach us that once upon a time a man did walk on water.  For some people that’s a problem.  Although they won’t usually admit it (especially not in church) there are some sincere Christians who have a hard time believing that things really happened the way Matthew says they did.  Luke may have been one of them.  Although you find versions of this story in Mark and John you do not find it in the Gospel of Luke.  Is it because Luke, the beloved physician, the thoughtful scientist, just couldn’t believe it?  There’s really no way to know that, but we do know this: that, for whatever reason, he left this story out of the gospel he was writing in the same way some people leave it out of the gospel they are reading.  They turn the page and skip over it; their rational minds just can’t accept it.

They gag on a story too big to swallow.

I once heard someone say that Baptists are people who get together to argue about who believes the Bible more.  If that’s true, then this would be one of those stories they would argue about.  Someone would jab his finger into someone else’s chest and ask, “Do you believe the Bible is true?” Yes.  “All of it?”  Yes.  “Even that part about Jesus walking on water?”  Yes.  “Do you believe that he did it physically, literally?”  Um…maybe.  “Aha!  An unbeliever!”  Do you see how quickly we might divide ourselves into those who are able to believe everything in the Bible is literally true and those who have some doubts?  “Here,” we would say: “if you believe the sun stood still as it says in Joshua 10:13 sit on this side of the church.  If you’re not sure, sit over there.  If you believe a fish swallowed a man as it says in Jonah 1:17 sit up front, and if you don’t then sit at the back.  If you believe Jesus walked on water as it says in Matthew 14:25 then sit in the balcony, a little closer to heaven, and if you don’t then sit down here, a little closer to the other place.”

We could do that.  In fact some Baptists have done that—made belief in the literal truth of Scripture a test of fellowship.  But let me ask you: what purpose does it serve other than making some people feel superior and others feel inferior—second-class citizens because, for whatever reason, they are unable to suspend their disbelief?  I don’t mean that they are unwilling to believe, I mean that they are unable!  Suppose we asked everyone who could lift a hundred pounds over their heads to sit on one side of the room and everyone who couldn’t to sit on the other.  What would it prove except that some people are physically stronger than others?  Why do we try to separate ourselves on the basis of whose faith is the strongest?  And for that matter is an ability to believe the unbelievable the same thing as faith?  I know people who believe that Elvis is still alive.  Does that mean their faith is strong?  Or does it only mean that some people will believe anything?

Rather than arguing about who believes the Bible more or dividing ourselves into the weak and the strong let me suggest another way.  When I talk about the Bible I like to say that it is the Word of God for the people of God, and that it is authoritative in all matters of faith and practice.  To put it simply, the Bible tells us what to believe and how to behave.  But even before that the Bible is the Word of God.  It is how God talks to us.  Therefore the appropriate question to ask when looking at a passage like this is not,

Did it actually happen this way? but,

What on earth is God trying to say? 

What does it mean to say something like Jesus walked on water, and in this story what does it mean to say that Peter did, too?  Let’s take a closer look…


This is just one of the things we discussed at Preacher Camp: the whole question of biblical authority and what to do with difficult passages of Scripture.  If you’d like to read the sermon in its entirety (“Surface Tension,” preached at First Baptist, Richmond, on August 10, 2008), you can just click HERE.

Copernican Revolution

These were my closing comments on Sunday, February 20, at the end of our DiscipleNow event for youth.  The theme of the the weekend was “Center Stage,” and raised the question of how your life might be different if Christ–and not you–occupied center stage.  It reminded me of an illustration I’ve used for a while now in talking to people about faith.  I shaped it up and shared it in worship that morning.  I’d like to share it here with you.  Thanks for reading.  –Jim


I once had a visit from a man who told me his wife was leaving him, but he didn’t know why.  I didn’t know why either.  He was good-looking, successful, a regular churchgoer who appeared to be devoted to his wife and children.  But now she was leaving him, and he wanted to know why.  “Tell me more,” I said.  So he did, and as he talked it became clear to me that his wife was only one of the planets whirling around him in his personal solar system.  His faith, his career, his political ambitions, his new house on the lake, his Harley-Davidson motorcycle…all of these things were also important to him but only insofar as they made his life richer and better.  He finally stopped talking and asked me what I thought.  I asked him if he had ever heard of Nicholas Copernicus.

Copernicus was a 16th century Polish mathematician.  He was the one who came up with the idea that the earth went around the sun instead of the other way around.  He’d had the idea years before, but it was only after years of working out the mathematical proofs that he became convinced it was true.  I picture him working in his study, coming to the end of a long, complicated mathematical equation, and writing down the result.  And then I picture him staggering out into the back yard, looking up at the sun and—almost literally—feeling the earth move under his feet, feeling the sky tumbling down, tumbling down as he imagined himself standing on the surface of a planet that was rotating at some 600 miles per hour while it hurtled through space around the sun.  It was such an earth-shaking idea that he didn’t publish the results of his investigation until the year of his death. 

His book was immediately banned by the church.  It was banned because the Bible made it clear that the sun went around the earth.  It was banned because, if Copernicus was right, the earth wouldn’t be the center of the universe anymore, and neither would we.  What this man who came to see me that day had to come to terms with is that he was not the center of the universe, either.  I challenged him to put God in that place instead and take up his rightful orbit around God instead of the other way around.  I promised him that if he would only do that, he would find that all the other things in his life would take up their proper orbits as well.  It was a whole new way of thinking for him, and it wasn’t easy to imagine.

One of the Greek words for “conversion” is the word epistrephein, which means to turn around, but the other word is metanoia, which means to change your mind.  I think it is this kind of thing the Greek word refers to: a change of mind so radical that it completely reorients you and your way of thinking.  The Copernican Revolution was so-named because it revolutionized the way people thought about the universe, the world, and themselves.  They were no longer at the center.  Conversion can be just that kind of displacing phenomenon.  If you put God at the center of your personal universe, then you can no longer occupy that place.  You have to take up your proper orbit around God.  But I believe that if you do everything else will fall into place, in just the way it’s supposed to.  You don’t have to take my word for it, though.  You can try it for yourself. 

Only then will you know if it’s true.

Death Is Only a Horizon

I did a funeral today for a lovely lady named Eleanor Wiley.  In my remarks I quoted an old poem by Rossiter Raymond that says:

We give them back to Thee, dear Lord, who gavest them to us; yet as Thou dost not lose them in giving, so we have not lost them by their return. Not as the world giveth, givest Thou, O Lover of Souls. What Thou gavest, Thou takest not away, for what is Thine is ours always if we are Thine. And Life is eternal and Love is immortal, and death is only an horizon, and an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.

I picked up on that last line and agreed that life is eternal.  Jesus said that “whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Eleanor was one of those “whosoevers,” and I believe she has already laid claim to her everlasting life.  I also agreed that love is immortal.  I asked Eleanor’s husband, Herb, if he loved her less today than before she died and he said, “No, of course not!”  That’s because his love for her is still alive and well.  It is stronger than death.  Finally I agreed that death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing but the limit of our sight.  I said it like this:

If you stand on the shore long enough and watch a cruise ship sail out to sea, there comes a time when you can’t see it anymore.  It sails beyond that curve in the earth’s surface that obscures it from your sight.  It doesn’t mean that it isn’t there; it only means that you can’t see it any longer.  For those people on board life is going on as it rarely does on shore, with fine dining and ballroom dancing and moonlit walks on the promenade deck.   In her death Eleanor Wiley has sailed beyond the horizon.  We can’t see her anymore, but that doesn’t mean her life isn’t going on.  It is.  Although I have a feeling that as we gather here this morning to mourn her death she is standing at the stern of that ship, looking back toward the shore, standing on tiptoe and waving her handkerchief to let us know that she’s all right—that death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing but the limit of our sight.

Bon Voyage, Eleanor!