A New Apology

Sometimes a fresh insight hits me in the the middle of delivering a sermon. I think this happens to a lot of preachers, despite all the prayer and preparation we do. Sometimes I even ask God to give me everything I need during the week so it doesn’t happen on a Sunday morning. Spurious ideas are often a distraction and sometimes I get lost. It doesn’t help listeners when the speaker gets lost.

Three weeks ago it happened again. I realized I had missed something huge, right in the middle of my message. The congregation wasn’t aware of it because I never mentioned it. Nor can anyone go back and observe what happened that day because the audio recording software failed to render the message (again). But you can take my word for it. I fumbled an opportune moment. I’ve tried to forget it, and haven’t.

So I’m going to use this blog as a tool to create the point I failed to make that Sunday morning, namely, a new apology, a fresh defense of our faith.

I began my sermon by noting how most Christians struggle with evangelism, often because we don’t know what to say. Perhaps the wildest opportunity would be for someone to fall to their knees and ask us what they must do to be in right relationship with God. This unlikely scenario actually happened to the three major characters of the New Testament–Jesus, Peter and Paul. What’s amazing to me is how each of these religious leaders gave vastly different, even contradictory, answers to that core question.

I listed the three answers anonymously to the congregation one at a time and asked them to vote if that was how they would answer the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The first option was “Keep the commandments,” (Matt. 19:17). I begged for votes from the congregation, but didn’t get any. The second choice was “Repent and be baptized,” (Acts 2:38). Nearly half the congregation raised their hands for that answer. I hadn’t expected that many. Perhaps I’ve not been clear in my preaching. The third answer was “Believe in the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:31). Just over half the people voted for that. A couple individuals may have voted twice to help make it the winner.

I pointed out nobody had voted for answer which came from Jesus’ lips, even though I had begged for votes. Then I asked which of the three contrasting answers was the right one. I planned for everyone to pull for his own vote and wrestle with the contradictions in the three answers. But instead, as one voice, the congregation responded firmly, “All three are right.”

I should have seen that coming. Immediately I realized why they had said that and parroted back to the congregation an old apologetic: “Jesus said it; therefore it’s true.” Heads nodded. In other words, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it for me.”

Gotcha! Too late. Sucker punch. Ouch.

It would have been better if instead I had said something like, “Isn’t it interesting that Jesus gave an answer which appears opposite to what we would say. Nobody in the room voted for Jesus’ answer. Let’s see if we can figure out why he gave this unique answer to that important question and what it means to us today. More than that, does Jesus’ answer show he is worthy of our trust?”

It was a missed opportunity. I affirmed the old apology, which rested on the authority of Scripture. Once upon a time, western society recognized the inspiration of Holy Writ even if many didn’t follow its morality. No longer. The authority of the Bible is not widely accepted outside the church. Therefore we must move to a deeper level to defend our faith. We need a new apology, anew defense. Here’s an example:

Old apology: “Jesus said it; therefore it’s true.” (And I dare not question it.)

New apology: “It’s true; therefore Jesus said it.” (And perhaps Jesus is worthy of my trust.)

It may seem like a trivial distinction. This is probably a hard point for some readers to follow. But I suspect there may be something significant here, even if I’m struggling to express it in a way that’s easy to understand. If a reader has thoughts about this hard challenge of apologetics for the church today, I’d appreciate hearing them.