Answering our critics

Pentecost 24

Luke 20:27-40

Marian Free

In the name of God who remains constant in the face of change, challenge and confusion. Amen.

There are always people who want to discredit Christianity. The most articulate and voluble critic of recent years has been Richard Dawkins, but another caught my eye recently. It is in fact old news, but The Courier Mail only mentioned it only in the last couple of weeks. Apparently, in 2006 a man by the name of Joseph Atwill published some research arguing that Jesus did not exist but was a creation of the Roman Empire who designed a new religion in order to keep the peace. From what I can gather, Atwill draws attention to the god myths surrounding the Caesars and demonstrates the similarities between these myths and the story of Jesus. Some similarities exist, but to draw the conclusion that Jesus was a cleverly designed myth seems to me to draw too long a bow. Many Christian scholars would argue that the reverse situation is true – that similarities exist because Christianity adopted some of the language of the empire in a way that was subversive and confrontational. The very fact that Christians adopt the language of “Lord” or “Son of God” for Jesus could be seen as an act of sedition against a state which held that the Emperor was god. The creation of a new god is certainly not outside the religious practices of the time, but I wonder why an empire would create a religious myth that, apart from anything else, led its adherents to abandon Emperor worship which was a key tool in ensuring unity and peace in the empire.

I have not read Atwill’s original work, so am unable to enter into fruitful dialogue, but his thesis demonstrates that information can be put to quite different uses depending on one’s point of view. In this case to suggest that Christianity is a myth created by Rome, or that its adherents quite deliberately used the mythology surrounding the divine status of the Emperor to challenge and undermine the Emperor cult.

That it is possible to draw different conclusions from similar information or beliefs is demonstrated by today’s gospel. The Judaism of Jesus’ day was not a monolithic structure, but one that encompassed a great deal of difference. One area of dispute was the validity of the Temple rituals which many Jews, including the Pharisees, believed had been corrupted by the Sadducees cooperation with foreign rulers. Another point of difference was belief in the resurrection of the dead. A reading of the OT and of the Psalms in particular reveals that resurrection was a newer addition to the belief system of the Hebrews. The Pharisees believed that the dead were raised but the Sadducees did not.

It was this difference of opinion that the Sadducees thought they would be able to exploit to their advantage. They hoped be able to make Jesus look foolish and thereby to reinforce their own authority. Of course they were unable do this. Jesus knew and understood his scriptures, he had a deep grasp of his faith and an intimate, unshakeable relationship with God. Jesus’ response to their challenge is interesting. In the first instance, he does not say that they are wrong. He simply presents a different point of view – one that challenges their own. Heaven is not an exact replica of earth, the spiritual existence will be quite different from the earthly experience, he says. Jesus continues with a reference to scripture, something both he and they believe to be true. According to Moses, God is the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob. Moses speaks of these long-dead men as if they are still in some sense alive. If they are alive, Jesus argues, then they must have been raised from death. The Sadducees had hoped to out manoeuvre Jesus, to demonstrate to the crowds their superior wisdom. Instead, of embarrassing Jesus, they have forced the scribes to admit that Jesus has answered well.

On a number of occasions the religious authorities try to embarrass Jesus, to discredit him in front of those who believe in him. However, no matter how hard they try, they cannot put one over him. Jesus is too confident, too sure of himself and of what he believes to waver.

We are living in changing times. We can no longer be sure that our faith is understood by a majority of the population, let alone accepted as the norm. In our society, there are many people who are resentful of the privileges that the church seems to enjoy, there are many others who are angry with the church because their experience of church has been harmful or demeaning and there are many who are disappointed that their questions were not answered and who no longer believe in God and who want to convince others to share that view. (Just last night I read that a new, non-religious organisation called Sunday Assembly is coming to Australia. Its founder says: ”it has been called the atheist church, but we prefer to think of it as all the best bits of church but with no religion and awesome songs. Their motto is “live better, help often and wonder more”, and their mission is to help everyone live this one life as fully as possible.”)

Just as the Sadducees’ place in the religious world of their time was being challenged by new ideas so too is ours. We can no longer expect that those around us will share our faith or even that they will understand why we should have faith.

In this day and age, one thing that we can be sure of is that our faith will be questioned – by those who want to trip us up in order to prove that their view of the world is right, by those who want to discredit Christianity by pointing out its past failures and present sins, by those who want to convince us to hold a different world view or by those whose hurt and anger at the church’s betrayal of them causes them to lash out at anyone who represents that church.

It is important for us to be ready for such confrontations so that we can respond with confidence and truthfulness and not be left feeling ashamed, outsmarted or confused. While it would be wonderful if every Christian knew their scriptures as well as Jesus did, it is unrealistic to imagine that everyone will become a biblical scholar or a theologian. However, we can all work on our understanding of our faith and on our relationship with God. We can think about what it is we believe, what our faith means to us and how we might explain that faith to someone else.

Sometime, ask yourself: What is central to your belief? What is it that gets you up on a Sunday to come to church and engage in this curious ritual? How do you envisage God? Think about what is central to Jesus’ teaching and what do his life, death and resurrection mean for your day-to-day existence? Consider what is it that keeps you believing when your prayers appear to go unanswered, when calamity strikes or when your life doesn’t work out the way you expected? How do you respond when someone says: how can you believe in a God who does this or that?  What language would you use to share your answers to those questions with others?

Having done that you might like to ponder some questions that those who do not believe regularly ask. For example: if God is love, why is there suffering in the world, how could God let that (say, the death of a child) happen? How would you respond to the accusation that it is religion that causes division and wars?

Increasingly it will not be strangers who question us, but our own children and grandchildren who will wonder why it is, in the face of scientific advances, the evidence of the church’s failures in cases like child sexual abuse, the church’s conservatism in the face of social change and the increasing number of alternatives to the Christian faith, that we continue to believe in and worship Jesus Christ.

It is important that we honour the doubts, questions and challenges of others, that we listen and respond with respect for their point of view. It is equally important that we hold fast to what we believe and that we do not compromise those beliefs in order to be accepted or to fit in. When your faith is challenged, when you are asked questions designed to embarrass or outwit, how will you react? Will you, like Jesus, be able to respond with love, with dignity and with confidence in the faith that you hold?

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