Entertaining Athiests Unawares?
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him….Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.—Matthew 4:19b-20, 23
Following a series of interviews with people who have become atheists The Atlantic magazine reports (June 2013) that most people become atheists after spending time in church—primarily because they are not hearing a strong message of spiritual transformation.
According to this article, and the atheists the author interviewed, people are looking for a more serious and vital version of Christianity—not a mushy mix of ceremony, hand-holding and kumbaya. So what can atheists teach us to help us create a stronger faith community? Well for starters they suggest we need to be clear about the Christian mission and message—and Jesus shows us how. In the gospel text for this week, as Jesus begins to call his disciples, we hear the word ‘repent’ again, only this time Jesus is saying it! He is inviting people to “turn around” and follow him and discover the amazing and unexpected closeness of God’s Way (the Kingdom of Heaven). Jesus was crystal clear about his mission and his message. He sees his mission as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, so he moves to Capernaum by the sea so that the people sitting in darkness can see a great light. He begins his ministry with a focus on replacing the shadow of death with the light of life.
And don’t we all need this light today!? The darkness of despair still needs to be replaced by the light of love and clarity; ignorance needs to be enlightened by insight; addiction must be overcome by self-control; illness overpowered by healing; isolation eliminated by community. Each of us has dark corners in our lives–places where we feel hopeless, sinful, lost, overwhelmed and alone. But when the great light of Christ begins to shine, we move from darkness into a new day.
But are we church folk, we who claim to be followers of Jesus, clear about Jesus’ mission and message? “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). In our zeal to be progressive (open, welcoming, relevant) and not like “Those Christians”, we soft peddle the Jesus factor for fear folk with be offended, or think we are representing the religious right. Rather than focusing on the light, we push social justice, community involvement, and “being good.” These are important and good things for us to be doing—but divorced from Jesus as the light of the world, they don’t shed light on the darkness.
Atheists remind us to keep Christ closely connected to real life. A college student named Stephanie said of her church experience, “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” We’ve got to make a strong link between the life we live today and the life of Jesus. We all struggle with sin and Jesus’ forgiveness. We all wander in confusion and need Jesus’ clarity. We all take actions grounded in ignorance — as individuals and communities — and we all need Jesus’ insights. It is our job as followers of Jesus to not only call for the correction of social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of Jesus the Christ, and help people connect that to their day to day lives.
Atheists teach us to offer thoughtful answers to life’s difficult questions. When asked what they found unconvincing about the Christian faith, they spoke of hot-button issues such as evolution versus creationism, human sexuality and the reliability of the biblical text. Young people went to church hoping to find answers to these questions, as well as guidance about ethics, purpose and personal significance.
What they found were services that were often shallow, harmless and irrelevant. As one student, said, “I really started to get bored with church.” We need not shy away from offering solid answers to difficult questions, from evolution to human sexuality. Not if we want to stay connected to the thoughtful and serious-minded Christians all around us. We also need to take the Bible seriously and invite people to follow Jesus. Without exception, the former church-attenders expressed respect for Christians who embrace biblical teaching. They may not believe the words of the Bible themselves, but they admire people who are authentic and who act on their beliefs.
Jesus certainly did this when he called his first disciples along the banks of the Sea of Galilee. He sees two fishermen, and says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus is bold enough to walk up to two complete strangers and challenge them to follow him in a life of discipleship. He cannot control their response, but he believes in what he is doing and is willing to act on his beliefs. They sense that he is so authentic and committed to his mission that they drop their nets and follow. And his word creates a new reality–discipleship. Jesus is consistent in word and deed. He teaches and preaches, and heals and his authenticity inspires people to follow him, and then his disciples recruit others to follow as well.
Unfortunately, we do not invite people to follow Jesus with this same enthusiasm. But why aren’t we excited? Jesus’ message and his mission are darned good stuff! Surely we can be clearer about the mission and message. Surely we can connect faith more closely to real life. Surely we can offer more thoughtful answers to life’s difficult questions, take the Bible seriously and invite others to follow Jesus. The light of Christ has come into our lives, and it is our calling to share it with others. Jesus has called each of us to follow him, and to “fish for people.” All we have to do is share our own story and tell them the good news (and make sure it is happening in church too)!
Rev. Wendy Miller Olapadefirstname.lastname@example.org