FOR OUR HALF-BELIEF
1] The recent controversies in
Canada's largest Protestant denomination have generated sharp disagreements and
more than a little anguish. For
Christians such controversy is unavoidable.
Peter tells us in his first letter that we should always be ready to
articulate our gospel-convictions when those convictions are challenged.
Time after time, on his missionary journeys, Paul went to the marketplace
or a church-hall and argued for the truth and substance of Jesus Christ.
This isn't to say that he argued nastily, that he became bad-tempered or
contemptuous or sarcastic. But it is
to say that he was prepared to argue on behalf of the one who had seized him and
now shone so brightly for him as never to be denied.
In other words, he was ready to speak for, speak up for, the gospel of
God whenever this gospel was maligned or distorted or simply misunderstood.
As the gospel has been contradicted in our own denomination some of us
have known what we had to do: we had to speak up, argue, dispute, and do all of
this in a manner which adorned the gospel itself.
As we have done this a crowd has gathered.
Because of the controversy I have addressed crowds larger than any I had
addressed before. In addition, news
reporters and magazine writers have ensured that there was always a crowd to
read if not to hear.
has ordained that there be a place for this.
DIALOGIZOMAI is a rich NT word; it means to dialogue, to discuss,
to argue, to reason, to question, to contend.
Yet while there is certainly a God-ordained place for this, it isn't
ultimate. Arguing and reasoning with
respect to the gospel are never ends in themselves.
Paul didn't argue in the marketplace because he was argumentative or
prickly; never because he relished arguing and enjoyed defeating someone in a
verbal joust. He argued only for the
sake of the gospel. We do as much
today only in order to dispel misunderstandings of the gospel, to clear away any
obscurities which might be impeding faith in our hearers.
Ultimately our purpose in arguing on behalf of the gospel is to get beyond
argumentation and have others embrace the gospel itself; that is, have them
cling to Jesus Christ in the strength and desire which his grip on them lends
we find the disciples of Jesus arguing with the scribes (according to Mark) we
understand why they argue, why they have to.
We understand too why a crowd gathered: crowds love controversies.
Yet as soon as Jesus shows up the crowds forget the arguing and flock
around him. They do so, Mark tells
us, insofar as they are amazed at him; as soon as they see him they are startled
at the authority he exudes. As soon
as they see him they recognize that he can do for them what no one else can.
of the crowd has brought his ill son to the disciples.
This man assumes that where there are disciples of Jesus there is also
the power of Jesus. He wants help
for his disordered son. As soon as
Jesus appears the parent recognizes that this man is the one he is really
from "the crowd" come to our services.
Recently several of them have come inasmuch as they have heard that there
is argument, controversy here. At
the same time some have come inasmuch as they have recently become parents and
are sobered by their new responsibility; or they have lost someone dear to them
and they have questions they cannot answer and a heartache they cannot assuage;
they come after any one of life's countless jarrings have left them wondering
profoundly or wobbling drunkenly. In
coming here; in coming into the midst of us who are disciples of Jesus, they
assume they are drawing near to Jesus himself.
They assume that from the midst of Christ's people there will be given
them what they need, or at least what they are looking for and what our Lord
alone can supply.
they come only to go, feeling that what they expected to find here isn't here.
Some, however, remain long enough that Our Lord himself appears to them .
In that instant, like the crowd of old, they recognize that he is
the one with authority. They are
startled as they recognize what they cannot put words to, yet they know.
Whether they have been attracted by the argumentativeness of this
congregation or put off by it, they now know that the disputes were never ends
in themselves but were always for
the sake of the one who has loomed before them and whom they know to love them.
2] The anguished parent in our
gospel story brings his son to Jesus. The
boy goes rigid; he convulses; he foams. Plainly
he is epileptic.
ailments which were brought to Jesus in the days of his earthly ministry were
certainly distressing ailments in themselves.
At the same time they were signs of a deeper, more difficult spiritual
problem besetting humankind. Think
for a minute of the blind people who are brought to Jesus.
Blindness is a dreadful affliction. To
be deprived of sight is certainly to be victimized by evil.
Since Jesus resists evil wherever he comes upon it, he restores sight to
those who are blind.
blindness is also symbolic of humankind's spiritual condition, as the NT stories
point out starkly. We are blind to
the nature and purpose and truth of God. We
are blind to the signs of God's presence. We
are blind to the truth about ourselves, blind to the nature of our own depravity
and blind to our situation before God, the just judge.
the same that Jesus restores sight to the physically blind, then, he expands the
meaning of his action to include the spiritual blindness which afflicts us all.
You must have noticed that in the account of our Lord's meeting with
Nicodemus Jesus says to him, "Truly, unless one is born anew (born of God)
one cannot even see the kingdom of God, much less enter it."
In other words, only as the truth and power of God penetrate us do we
become spiritually perceptive and discerning.
epileptic boy is brought to Jesus. His
epilepsy needs attention and is given attention.
At the same time, the symptoms of the boy's epilepsy point to the
symptoms of humankind's spiritual condition.
the boy is dumb; mute; can't speak at all. Which
is to say, humankind does not praise God. This
is startling, since we are commanded to praise God.
As a matter of fact the command to praise God is the most frequently
repeated command in scripture. The
characteristic of God is that God speaks. God
speaks to us in expectation of eliciting speech from us.
The absence of heartfelt and heartmeant exclamation to God is spiritual
dumbness; as such it is a sign of our spiritual disorder, for it is first
a consequence of our spiritual disorder.
Only as there is a restorative work of God within us are we freed to
praise God from our heart.
the second place, the boy's behaviour renders him unsightly and
self-destructive. No one pretends
that an epileptic seizure is pretty or pleasant to behold.
A seizure never yet made anyone beautiful.
Neither does our sin render us attractive.
Our condition of sinnership, of course, is what underlies those unsightly
outcroppings which we call sins. We
don't pretend for a minute that the outcroppings produced themselves.
The outcroppings which disfigure us are outcroppings of a spiritual
condition which is so deep in us as to be hidden to all except those with
Spirit-quickened understanding. Still,
it is the outcroppings which everyone sees, whether believer or unbeliever.
list of sins could ever be complete, since our underlying sinnership effervesces
inexhaustibly. Nevertheless, here
and there in scripture we come upon partial lists.
When Jesus speaks of our root condition of sinnership and refers to its
outcroppings he speaks off the top of his head of "evil thoughts,
fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.
He stops there only because he assumes he has made his point.
In the same way Paul rattles off "covetousness, malice, envy,
murder, strife, deceit, gossip, slander, hatred of God, insolence, abuse of
parents, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness."
He stops there only because he has run out of breath.
Any one of us could add another fifty.
point is this. As we soberly look
over the partial lists none of us would say that these outcroppings are other
than unsightly. Blemishes, in fact.
And in view of what God created us for they are hideous disfigurements.
And these disfigurements, insists Jesus, are a consequence of the root
human spiritual condition.
boy's behaviour also renders him self-destructive: his affliction has often
thrown him into water and fire. Sin is
humanly destructive. Sin slays,
to be sure, and it issues ultimately in spiritual annihilation.
This too is part of the human condition.
the third place, when the boy's father is asked for how long his son has been
afflicted, the father blurts out, "From childhood; he's been like this from
childhood!" I know for
how long I have been afflicted with my sinnership, and I know for how long you
have been afflicted with yours: from childhood.
Several years ago someone asked me for a sermon on original sin.
I preached it, and it is ready-to-hand in my little book, MAKING SENSE OF
CHRISTIAN FAITH. I won't repeat the
sermon now. Suffice it to say that
"from childhood" is no exaggeration.
Lord's depiction of the human condition is accurate.
Few people, however, believe him. They
believe that education, the welfare state, improved recreational facilities,
better health care will together transmute the human condition.
It won't. Only the touch of
our Lord does this.
3] The father brings his boy to
Jesus and says, "If you can do something, anything, have pity
on us and do it." "Do you
believe that I can?", asks Jesus, "or are you simply giving utterance
to a bit of wistful thinking?" "I
do believe that you can", the man says, "but I can't seem to
believe enough! Do something about
my unbelief!" Whereupon Jesus
restores the boy to health. You and
I are no different. We do
believe that our Lord is saviour. We
are not dabbling in wistful thinking. We
do believe that he alone can deal with that sinnership which is the root
spiritual condition of every last human being.
Yet when we search our hearts, look out onto the world and note what
awaits us there, look back into our hearts -- why, it's like Peter getting out
of the boat with a modicum of confidence, only to look at the waves around him,
and finding himself going under. In
other words, every time we say, "I believe", we are also driven to
cry, "but I can't seem to believe enough".
say this, however, is to admit that we cannot generate faith
ourselves. We cannot come to
be possessed of greater faith by fostering or facilitating something inside our
psyches. There is no incantation or
meditative technique or guru-gimmick or mystical magic by which we can generate
faith out of our own resources. We
come to be possessed of greater faith only by looking away from ourselves, away
from our half-believing hearts, to the God who has promised to enlarge even
mustard-seed faith. God alone can do
this. Then we must keep on looking
to him, for only as we look away from ourselves to him will we be fully assured
that our Lord can restore us and will restore others.
disciples have witnessed the restoration of the boy.
They are taken aback at their own spiritual impotence.
The boy's father had brought the boy to them (as we mentioned several
minutes ago) assuming that disciples of Jesus are themselves possessed of the
very thing which their master exemplifies in himself and lends to his followers.
Now the disciples are sobered. They
cannot deny their own spiritual poverty. "Why
do we appear ineffective in the face of humankind's condition and need?",
they ask. Jesus replies tersely,
"It's a matter of prayer; always a matter of prayer."
saying it is a matter of prayer our Lord does not mean it is a matter of
muttering a religious formula; not a matter of pious abbracadabbra.
It is, however, a matter of petitioning God morning and night to
magnify the faith he has given us. It
is a matter of exercising the faith we have by concentrating more on the
risen one who stands in our midst than on the turbulence which forever laps our
lives. It is a matter of contending
for the truth of the gospel (as we must) without crushing ourselves by thinking
that the future of God's kingdom hinges on the success of our argumentation.
It is a matter of acknowledging that we share in Christ's victory only as
we participate in his sufferings. And
prayer is always a matter of not fleeing or cluttering the wilderness-episodes
of our lives but rather recognizing that we are led into wilderness-episodes in
order that we, like Jesus before us, might hear our Father speaking to us with
new clarity. All of this is gathered
up as Jesus says to the disciples, "Spiritual authenticity is found in
those who pray."
It's an old account of a disordered, disfigured
fellow who has been afflicted from childhood.
He typifies the root human condition.
He typifies as well, however, that work of grace by which our Lord
renders you and me all believing people creatures who redound to the praise of
God's mercy -- even as the selfsame grace renders our insufficient belief
sufficient; sufficient unto that day when faith will give way to sight and we
shall behold our blessed Lord face-to-face, forever and ever.
Victor A. Shepherd