God Help Our Unbelief
Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17, Romans 8:12-17
Edgar Allen Poe famously stated, “Believe only half of what you see, and none of what you hear.” In this brave new world of malleable truths, “fake news” and repetitive 24-hour news cycles, it is more difficult than ever to sort fact from fiction – to believe what we see and hear. There are internet fact-checking groups, and yet, there are still many who believe things no matter if they are proven true or false. News feeds are being controlled by fewer and fewer people and all those people have an agenda to put forward. The death of the truly independent news outlet has sent shivers up and down the ranks of those who would like to believe that we still live in a democracy policed by the media, rather than an autocracy which controls it. Who and what to believe – to have faith in, that is what the Wesley brothers were wondering…
This week was the anniversary of the “Aldersgate” experience of the Wesley brothers. Charles had his faith in Jesus confirmed on May 21st and John had his “heart strangely warmed” on May 24th. John’s well documented struggle with his faith had led him to a Bible study that fateful night some 280 years ago. Someone was reading Luther’s prologue to Romans, and John felt assurance that his sins had been forgiven – even his sins. He had been a Church of England priest for several years, but still didn’t feel that he had the depth of faith that he had seen in others. Once he had his experience, he never again doubted his faith in Jesus – he had gone from belief to faith.
In the Church the terms “belief” and “faith” are often used interchangeably. While they are related to each other – and in fact depend a bit on one another, they are not equivalent. You see, faith requires both belief and trust and leads to some sort of action to live out that belief. Belief can be just a mindset and result in nothing. For example: I may believe in Jesus, like John Wesley, but I may not have developed the deep and abiding trust in Him necessary for me to fully commit to His service. Our scriptures have much to say about this belief/faith interface – let us take this to God in prayer….
Isaiah is young as we encounter him in scripture today. He receives a vision of the LORD of Hosts surrounded by seraphs and smoke – the whole temple shaking with the worship that is ongoing. Isaiah names his inadequacy to be in such as place as he is “a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…” Even so, he has been allowed to see the King of Kings in his vision. His belief in God becomes faith in God once the seraph cleanses his lips with a hot coal. Once Isaiah has his faith in place – his belief and trust in God – then he can take on God’s call to be prophet to the people.
Earlier in the 8th Chapter of Romans, Paul states, “…For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace….” (v 5-6) These two verses help us unpack our scripture for today. Paul is saying that those believers who have faith enough to be led by the Holy Spirit are indeed God’s children – who have been adopted by God to work for God to the glory of God. Those whose belief has been elevated by trust to faith will do like the prophet Isaiah and go where God calls them to go.
Now we get to the Pharisee named Nicodemus who, according to the Gospel of John, came to see Jesus under cover of darkness. Nicodemus is a learned man and one who is likely schooled well in the Tanakh (the whole Hebrew Bible). However, Jesus gets him all turned around and befuddled before just a few words have been spoken. Nicodemus praises him as being from God and Jesus tells him that to see the kingdom of God one must be “born from above”. Probably not the response to his opening statement that Nicodemus was expecting. They go on speaking in parallel to each other with Nicodemus becoming more lost with every word from Jesus. This is because Jesus is talking about things of the Spirit and not of the flesh…Nicodemus is still thinking with his mind on earthly things or “flesh” to use Paul’s terminology.
Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit in a very different way than Nicodemus understood it. Jesus is talking about a Spirit that moves and is a part of us. Nicodemus is still thinking about the Spirit as something of God that is loving and supporting and fills people with gifts and powers. Likewise, Nicodemus’ view of the kingdom of God is likely still mainstreamed with his view of a warrior Messiah set to raise a human army and overthrow the Romans. This Zealot view was prominent in first century Palestine. Jesus tries to get him back by telling him that he’s got his mindset all wrong – like Peter, he is focused on earthly things even though Nicodemus should know better as he is a “teacher of Israel” – he of all people should know about the Spirit of God.
How about you and this Holy Spirit? Last week we had Pentecost where the Spirit breathed, moved and created the Church of Jesus. This week we have the prophet Isaiah, the Apostle Paul and Jesus all becoming new creations due to the power and action of the Spirit. How has the Spirit moved in you to move you along your spiritual journey? Are you still at the point of believing with your mind but not the whole of you? If so, you are not alone – many religious folks don’t ever make it past this stage of their development. They support the Church and come when it suits them and at important events like holy days, weddings and funerals. They find themselves going through the motions of church life – it is one more thing to do in an already busy life.
How about those of you who can point to a moment or to a series of events in your life where the Spirit has moved you from belief to faith? That is from belief alone to belief plus trust in God that led to action? This is where the brothers Wesley were so many years ago this week. They were good and somewhat capable priests in the Church of England, but their ministries were unremarkable. Once they received their rebirth from above, nothing was ever the same again. Suddenly, trusting in the forgiveness of Jesus, the brothers were able to lead the revitalization movement that ultimately resulted in a new denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784.
There are times, friends, when we must suspend our rational minds and allow God’s Spirit to work within us so that we might become new creations. Opening yourself up to the Spirit requires that you release control of things in your life to God. This is difficult to do until the moment that you are overcome by the Spirit and you feel peace and love and safety. At that moment, you will understand your adoption by God and you will notice that the most important thing is figuring out how it is that your energies, time, talents and resources can be used by God for the betterment of humankind.
This week I was at a minister’s meeting and Karen Coppage came to talk about the vision that she had for addressing needs in Madison County. She is calling it “Madison Helping Madison” and will seek to raise work teams from all business entities and churches and folks like the Ruritans, Elks, etc, to work on the problems that are endemic to Madison County. She is talking about making changes together with others who may have never heard the gospel. Yet, they are predisposed to good works by that same Holy Spirit that is working within you. When we allow the Holy Spirit access to our very lives, we find that phenomenal creations appear. Things like MESA, Restore Madison, Habitat for Humanity, UMCOR, Camp Unakite, Wounded Warriors, and countless others.
My prayer for all of us is that the Holy Spirit will continue to work to change our unbelief to belief and our belief into faith. Once we are all born again from above, we will be focused on things from above and God will move in a powerful way to save the whole world through Jesus the Christ. All God’s adopted children said…AMEN!