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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Acts 1:6-14 

Steps of Faith (Part 1): “Believe”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The sermons for May are a 4-part series called, “Steps of Faith.” This is week one, and the title of the sermon is, “Believe.” The rest of the sermons, the other steps of faith, are “Receive,” “Do,” and “Relax.” At least, that's how they're published in the newsletter. The first two rhyme, which is good. If I had really brought my game to the titles, they all would have rhymed. Maybe: Believe, Receive, Achieve, and Reprive. These are steps of faith. They aren't the only steps of faith. And they're not necessarily sequential. You might achieve before you believe, or get a reprieve that helps you receive. The temptation is to think that faith travels a straight line, that you get to Point A before you can go to Point B, or that you have to fulfill certain requirements before you get a promotion. The beauty of Christianity, as opposed to, say, Scientology, is that what Jesus called the “little children” of faith are on the same level as the greatest saints. Faith the size of a mustard seed (as Jesus used to say) can do as much as a whole bucketful of faith. So, if you look down the pew, or across the aisle, or up into the choir loft, and you see someone and think, “Gee, I wish I was as strong in faith as she is, or as he is,” get over it. She or he is on the same level of faith as you. She or he is just as sinful as you are. She or he might be able to articulate faith more eloquently, she or he might have more time to do works of faith, she or he might have found a particular calling, a certain ministry that she or he has devoted her or himself to – but – she or he is no further along the path of faith than you. On any given day, your steps of faith cover just as much ground.

Today's Step of Faith sermon is called, “Believe.” Believing is often considered the first step of faith – as in, you have to believe in God, you have to believe in Jesus before you can take more steps – however; I'm not convinced belief is the only starting step of faith. Today's scripture is about faith, about belief. But the scripture doesn't start at the beginning of faith, as in, here's step one for those of you who like to read directions. Today's scripture picks up somewhere in the middle of the disciples' journey of faith, sometime after Jesus has died, after the Resurrection, but before the Holy Spirit is received, which is next Sunday's step. We pick up today somewhere in the middle of faith, where the scripture talks about some pretty miraculous belief, but also talks about some pretty miraculous dis-belief, too, both of which were building blocks for a step of faith.

So when they (the disciples) had come together, they asked him...

Remember, the crucifixion has happened, the burial has happened, the resurrection has happened, and now, in the 40 days after Easter, Jesus has been appearing to the disciples, teaching them what they need to know in order to continue to get along without him. So, when they had come together – meaning, presumably – no more private lessons, the whole team is in the huddle – when they had come together, they asked him...

"Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

OK, here – I think – is the genesis of the step of faith which is belief:

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven....

Now, bear in mind, the disciples are pretty well schooled in things that defy belief. After all, for the past 40 days they've been walking around, listening to a man who has risen from the dead. It's going to take a lot to surprise these guys. Jesus is talking to them, teaching them about the Holy Spirit, and without so much as a summary paragraph, while he is talking, as they are watching, he is lifted up and a cloud takes him out of sight.

What do the disciples do? Something like this. [Slackjaw]. Would you think that this [slackjaw] is an expression of belief? Or of disbelief?

OK. Any of you have kids? Any of you have parents? Any of you have husbands or wives or fairly significant others? Have any of them ever done something you just couldn't believe? Or, let me ask it this way: Can you think of the last thing they did you just could not believe? Something that made you go [slackjaw]? Something that made you pretty sure evolution works backwards as well as forwards? Whether something is shockingly good, shockingly bad, or just shocking, we give it the [slackjaw] or some variation on the expression, not so much because we believe what we're seeing, but because we can't believe what we just saw, heard, or got a phone call from the principal about. So we stare in disbelief. Where does belief begin? Belief always begins at the edge of disbelief. People a lot of times will talk about “Taking a leap of faith.” As if faith is always where we plan and diagram the lift, loft and trajectory, and take a well-engineered running long-jump in heroic courage. No. A lot of times (most of the time?), faith starts with shocking disbelief. A smack upside the head, a kick in the seat of the pants, a yank or a shove from out of the blue that makes us stare up into the blue, wondering, what the heck just happened, how the heck am I supposed to deal with this? Belief and disbelief aren't opposites; belief and disbelief are the tug of war between where we are and where God wants us to be. 

Think about it. The disciples have been schooled by Jesus for the past 40 days. That's a pretty good education. They've learned about faith during this education time. But it still takes the thing that makes them go slackjawed before they really believe. Think about yourself. You come to church, you learn about faith. You go to Sunday School, you learn about faith. But when are times you really, really turn the corner from disbelief to belief? You learn about faith at church; you believe at the side of a hospital bed. You ponder faith in the wilderness; you believe staring down a gravesite. When the teenager's car pulls into the driveway, when an enemy takes your call, when something good happens out of the blue, when your face switches from a furrowed brow to the release of tears that drip around your cheeks and leave their salty taste in your gaping mouth – that's when you really, really believe. All the faith education is preparing you for that one moment of slackjawed belief. And disbelief. At the same time.

You say, “Wait a minute. I've never seen Jesus rising up on a cloud. I've never had a miracle of healing. I've never spoken in tongues or walked on water. Well, of course you haven't. You're Presbyterian. But every one of you has had a moment, maybe recently, when you just couldn't believe what you were seeing or hearing, when you stood slackjawed at a person or event, when you wondered, maybe aloud, “What the heck is this, and how the heck am I going to handle this?” In that moment when your belief and disbelief crash headlong together, when your mouth is wide open and nothing is coming out, God fills the silence with words too sweet to bear.

And the angels said to them...

"Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

In those rare moments when we don't know what to say, God speaks. God fills our gaping mouths with words of comfort and hope. We believe. Not because we've made some logical, conscious decision, but because we don't know what else to do.