How Can I Be A Good Christian When I’m Still An Unbeliever?

Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 4: 18-22; James 2: 1-6a, 14-18)

This morning we are concluding Questions of Faith: A Sermon Series for the Uncertain.  Each Sunday for the past six weeks we’ve been addressing some of the doubts and questions you came up with a couple of years ago. I’m not going to run through all the questions like I’ve done before; you can go to the website and check them out if you’d like.  I do, however, want to say two things:

First, these are really great questions you’ve come up with.  You not only pushed yourselves with these questions, you pushed us as your pastors.  You made us dig in and wrestle with them a bit and really work on these sermons.  And I want to thank you for that.

The other thing I want to say is I hope that asking hard questions of faith is not something that ends with the conclusion of a sermon series.  Who knows, Grace and I may tackle some of the other questions from this pulpit down the road, but I don’t want you to think it’s limited to just sermons.  So let me go on record: Grace and Jodi and I love you all and welcome your questions, your doubts, your struggles.  You can write them down on an index card if you want.  Or you can grab a cup of coffee with one of us, sit down with us, and share them face to face.  We will not promise you an answer, but we will promise to listen and wrestle with them together, and sit with you in the midst of the murky gray that oftentimes is the color of our faith.

So – is that a deal?  Okay.

With that, our question today is:

How can I be a Good Christian when I’m still an unbeliever?

I would ask that you hold that question in the back of your mind as I read Jesus’ words to his disciples found in Matthew 4:18-22 .  Listen to the Word of God:

As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 

This is the Word of the Lord – thanks be to God!

Would you pray with me?

Almighty God, once again we ask that you speak a new word to us – a word that informs, that challenges, that comforts, that inspires.  And walk alongside us, not as we avoid our doubts and questions, but as we step right into them.  In Jesus’ name we pray, AMEN.

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Today’s question – for me, at least – feels the most challenging of all the questions we’ve asked these past six weeks.  All have involved some struggling with faith, some doubt, some uncertainty.  All have required a level of vulnerability from the one asking it and those of us digging into it.

Today’s question is challenging because within the one question are at least three smaller questions that really aren’t that small.

How can I be a Good Christian when I’m still an unbeliever?

For starters, take the whole “Good Christian” thing.  It implies a particular kind of Christian; the kind someone should try to be, or should already be.   And maybe this is making too much of something, but the person who wrote this question capitalized the word “Good.”  Why is that?   What exactly makes a Christian “Good” with a capital “G?”  And if there are “Good Christians,” does that mean that there are bad ones as well?   And what does that look like? 

And then there’s that word “unbeliever.”  It’s a tricky word because it can a couple of things.  It can mean someone who has doubts and struggles as they’re holding onto faith.  Or it can mean someone who holds no beliefs at all, at least in a theological sense.  Which kind of unbelief is this talking about?

Even the word “still” presents challenges.  “I’m still an unbeliever” – as if they’ve been expecting at some point not to be.  Like “I’ve still not had my baby yet” or “I’m still a Wake Forest fan waiting for a winning basketball team.”  Is this person frustrated, perhaps even a little frightened, that they are still an unbeliever?

How can I be a Good Christian when I’m still an unbeliever?

It’s a little risky to imagine too much about the person behind the question – context is an elusive thing – but I cannot help but wonder, just wonder, if his or her story is in any way similar to Devin’s story.

Devin is a middle-aged man living in suburban Virginia with his wife, three young kids and two dogs.  He works for an architectural firm and makes a suitable living for his family now and in the years to come.  He coaches his son’s soccer team, he sits on the board of the local food pantry.  He is also active in his church – he and his wife made sure they had a church home before their first child came along.  Devin’s been on the board of deacons before, he’s taught Sunday school and works at the soup kitchen when his name comes around on the list.  Right now he’s head usher for the month, and his oldest is getting ready to start confirmation, which kind of blows his mind; seems like just yesterday he was in the nursery.

If you looked at Devin from the outside you’d pretty much assume that, while nobody’s perfect, Devin’s got it all together.  In family and work and community.  And in his faith.  He’s so involved and invested in church, he has good insights in the weekday morning bible study.  And he’s just a nice guy.  Devin is exactly the kind of person you’d think of when you hear “Good Christian.”

But inside, where no one can see, Devin feels like he’s anything but.  For one, he’s not really sure what he believes at the moment.  It comes and goes – sometimes he feels certain in faith, other times not so much.  There are some things in the Bible he just cannot get on board with – the parting of the Red Sea, the virgin birth, even the resurrection – how could these things have really happened, and how important is it to believe them?  He wrestles with that.  He wrestles with the whole concept of church – most of the time he loves the community and what it strives to be, but sometimes decisions are made that he doesn’t agree with, sometimes people in the church hurt other people.  He wrestles with that.  And he wrestles with Christianity in general, especially in this day and time, when so many people are doing so many non-Christian things in the name of Jesus.  He wrestles with that.

Sometimes he feels like he’s the only person who feels this way.  His brain tells him otherwise; but then again, he looks around and everyone else seems to have it together, everyone else seems to have it relatively figured out.  Maybe he’s the only one.  Maybe it’s just him who has deep questions and reservations about so many things with God and Christianity and the church. 

And because he feels that way, and is still active in church, he kind of feels like a poser, like a fake.  Like he is pretending to be someone he’s not, putting on a show; and he’s ashamed by that.  He knows a couple of people he could talk to, and the pastor is someone he trusts.  But every time he gets up the nerve, life happens.  Another soccer game.  Another firm client.  Heck, even church obligations can get in the way, imagine that! 

So Devin just lives with it. He lives his life the best he knows how; he does what he does because it seems to be the right and good thing.  But in those rare quiet moments when he actually has time to think, the question is always there waiting for him:

How can I be a good Christian when I’m still an unbeliever?

I mean, maybe Devin’s story has nothing to do with the story of the person who wrote this question on an index card two years ago.  Maybe they’re not even remotely in the same ballpark.  Or maybe they are.  Maybe it’s in yours.

Do you find, sisters and brother, that Devin’s story is in some way similar to your own?

If you do, then the first thing I want you to hear right off the bat is this: you are not a poser.  You are not putting on a show.  You are a complicated person living a complicated faith in a complicated world.  That’s a lot of complicated!  If you are not sure what you believe, or if what you believe changes, or waxes and wanes from time to time, it is okay. 

The truth is, you and I have been brought up – by family, by the community of faith, by society at large even – we’ve been brought up to believe that everything in the Christian faith hinges on what we believe – what Merriam-Websters defines as, “accepting something as true.” 

That’s all well and good – but what happens when it gets harder and harder to discern that?  What if things change around us, or what if we change, and the “accepting something as true” part does not come as readily or as easily as it once did?  Or what happens if truth itself is thrown into question – what if that notion changes, what if competing “truths” muddy the waters?  What happens when we are not sure what we believe?

Now I want to be careful here when I talk about beliefs, because beliefs, for those who have them, are very precious and personal things.  They are like these wonderful gifts we’re given, and they have the potential to unlock doors that, when opened, lead us to truth – and any effort to find truth is a worthy endeavor.

But I have always been struck by what Jesus says – and doesn’t say – in our scripture today.  Here in Matthew, at the very beginning of his work in the world, as he reaches out to gather the community of people who’d go on the journey with him.  He’s walking by the sea and spots Peter and Andrew fishing away.  He goes up to them, he doesn’t know them and they have no clue who he is.  And what does he say to them?  What does he say to them?

That’s right.  Follow me.  Not believe in me.  Did you notice that?  Not “believe in me.”  Because that would be pretty bold to ask right off the bat, don’t you think?  Believe in you?  I don’t even know you!  Why would I believe in you? 

He doesn’t ask them to believe.  He asks them to follow.  “Follow me,” Jesus says, “and I will make you fish for people.”  Later he runs into James and John; and even though Matthew doesn’t say it directly, it is easy to picture Jesus asking them as well: “Follow me.  Follow me and I will show you a new way of living.  Follow me.”

It would be years before Jesus would ask his disciples to believe in him – after they had seen first-hand the kind of life he lived, the love he shared, the miracles, the teachings and healings.  After they had witnessed all of that.  Later he would ask, Who do you say that I am, What do you believe?  Belief comes well into the journey. 

And even then, the disciples still don’t quite get it.  They had Jesus right there with them; and yet, for every “You are the Messiah, God’s son,” there was “Some say you’re a prophet, I don’t know.”  For every moment of clarity and insight, there were dozens where those closest to Jesus were totally clueless. 

But they still followed him.  Even when they weren’t sure what they believed, they still followed him.  Even after he was gone, they still followed him.

Jesus wanted people to believe in him, but what he really wanted, what he asked straight off the bat, was that people follow him. 

The writer of James speaks directly to this.  His whole letter is an essay on living out one’s faith, and figuring out what we believe as we are living it.  In the second chapter he describes a scenario – one wonders if it’s hypothetical or has some grounding in reality – a scenario where two people show up for church, one obviously much better off financially than the other; and the better-off one is given preferential treatment.  Meanwhile, one imagines, they are worshipping and singing hymns of God’s love for everyone and listening to a sermon on the value of every life – beliefs they hold dear, but apparently not enough to put into action.

Which leads James to pen perhaps his best zinger in the letter:

Show me your faith apart from your works, he says,
and I by my works will show you my faith.

Over the years, James has gotten a bit of a bad rap from those who claim he’s preaching “works righteousness,” which is the idea that we are set right with God by the things we do.    But that’s not what he’s saying at all.  What he’s saying is that how we live is the flesh on the bones of our very faith – and we make a mess of those “bones” if we fail to get that.

In his first year in seminary, founder of Sojourners Jim Wallis and his friends went through the entire Bible and found every verse that dealt with the poor and social injustice, and the call of followers of Jesus to put their faith into action.  They found thousands of verses – in the first three gospels, one out of ten; in Luke alone, one out of seven.  One of them got an old Bible and began cutting out each verses.  And when he was done, the bible was literally in tatters, barely holding together.  Much of the Psalms and prophets had essentially vanished.  It could hardly be called a Bible at all.  It’s not much of a faith either.

How can I be a Good Christian when I’m still an unbeliever?

Friends, more than being a “Good Christian,” you are being just a Christian – a follower of Jesus – when you struggle, when you doubt, when you’re not sure what you believe.  Doubts and uncertainties and struggles are part of the faith journey.  We’re not doing it wrong when we have doubts.  We’re not faking this Christian thing when we’re living the most faithful life we can and still have doubts. As Frederick Buechner famously says, doubts “are the ants-in-the-pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.”

And belief?  Belief is not a prerequisite to living a faithful life.  Belief is not some intro class you have to take and pass before you can move on to the more advanced levels.  Faith is not some step-by-step, incremental and linear process.  You know what faith is?  Faith is art.  It’s jazz.  It’s improv.  We figure it out as we go along. 

Follow me, Jesus says.  Follow me in your moments of certain faith; follow me in your doubt and unbelief.  Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly, follow me.  And know that you are more than a “Good Christian” with a capital “G.”  You are a Christian.  You’re a follower of mine.  That is all I ever wanted.  That is more than enough.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.