By Pastor Paul
Scripture Text: Matthew 4:12-23
The brief definition of atheist is a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being. You might be surprised to learn that many people become atheists because of their bad experiences with Christianity. Specifically speaking, they are not hearing a strong message of spiritual transformation in churches and among Christians.
Larry Alex Taunton recently conducted a series of interviews with people who have become atheists, and reported his discoveries in The Atlantic magazine (June 2013). He found that most people become atheists after spending time in church. Ultimately, they lose their faith in direct response to Christianity, not as a negative reaction to Islam or Buddhism, for example. It’s not that atheists want less Christianity. Rather, they want a more serious and vital version of it.
Kenda Creasy Dean writes in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford, 2010): “The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe; namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on ‘folks like us’ – which, of course, begs the question of whether we are really the church at all.
“What if the blasé religiosity of most American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel so devoid of God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit that it might not be Christianity at all? What if the church models a way of life that asks not passionate surrender but ho-hum assent? What if we are preaching moral affirmation, a feel-better faith and a hands-off God instead of the decisively involved, impossibly loving, radically sending God of Abraham and Mary, who desired us enough to enter creation in Jesus Christ and whose Spirit is active in the church and in the world today?”
What, then, can atheists teach Christians to help us create a stronger and better church? For starters, let’s be clear about the Christian mission and message. Jesus certainly was. “Repent,” says Jesus – turn your life around. Jesus invites people to follow him and discover the amazing and unexpected closeness of the kingdom of heaven.
As he begins his ministry, the gospel of Matthew says that Jesus goes to Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee, precisely because he sees his mission as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah: “On the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (vv. 13-16).
Jesus moves to Capernaum by the sea so 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. We need this light today. The darkness of despair still needs to be replaced by the light – replaced by clarity. Ignorance enlightened by insight. Addiction overcome by self-control. Illness overpowered by healing. Isolation eliminated by community. Each of us has some 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.
Unfortunately, many churches fail to be clear about the Christian mission and message. They put Christ’s light under a bushel, ignoring the fact that he says, “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). Rather than focusing on this light, churches offer messages that push social justice, community involvement, and “being good.” These are not bad things, in and of themselves, but they should never be divorced from Jesus as the light of the world.
Next, atheists remind us to keep Christ closely connected to real life. Reflecting on her experience in church, a college student named Stephanie said, “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” Churches must make a strong link between the life we live today and the life of Jesus. We each struggle with sin and Jesus’ forgiveness. We wander in confusion and need Jesus’ clarity. We take actions grounded in ignorance – as individuals and communities – and need Jesus’ insights.
Taunton says that “the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay.” Thus, she became an atheist. We will continue to lose young people like Stephanie unless we proclaim the message of Christ, and allow his light to shine on every aspect of human life.
Atheists also teach us to offer thoughtful answers to life’s difficult questions. When Taunton asked students 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. They went to church hoping to find answers to these questions, as well as guidance about ethics, purpose and personal significance.
What did they find? Church services that were often shallow, safe and irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering student, said to Taunton, “I really started to get bored with church.” As Christians and Christ’s church, we must 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.
Atheists also push us to take the Bible seriously and invite people to follow Jesus. Without exception, the former church-attenders interviewed by Taunton 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, the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew, casting their net into the sea. Jesus says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they leave their nets and follow him (vv. 18-20).
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 fully believes in what he is doing and is willing to act boldly on his beliefs. They sense that he is so authentic and committed to his mission that they drop their nets and follow him. His word creates a new reality: Discipleship.
Then, to prove that this is no fluke, Matthew tells us that Jesus sees two other brothers, James and John, in a boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He calls them, and immediately they leave the boat and their father and follow Jesus (vv. 21-22).
So, Jesus is now four for four in terms of succeeding in getting people to follow him.
The passage ends with Matthew telling us that “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” (v. 23). Jesus is no charlatan – he is entirely consistent in word and deed. He teaches and preaches about the kingdom of God, and then shows that this kingdom is coming by curing disease and sickness among the people. His authenticity inspires people to follow him, and then his disciples recruit others to follow as well.
Unfortunately, we’re failing to invite people to follow Jesus with this same kind of enthusiasm. Atheists are critical of this, including a young man named Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth. He told Taunton that he’s drawn to people who are excited about discipleship and want other people to follow Jesus. He said, “I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.”
Surprising words, coming from a person who probably doesn’t want to be converted. But important for us to consider. Even if the conversion of atheists is not our specific focus, we should certainly be willing to share our excitement about being a follower of Jesus. And why shouldn’t we be excited? After all . . .
– Jesus shows us the grace and truth of God like no other person who has ever lived (John 1:17).
– Jesus brings the kingdom of heaven into the very middle of human life (Mat. 4:17).
– Jesus teaches us how to love the Lord and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mat. 22:37-39).
– Jesus demonstrates how to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mat. 5:44).
– Jesus offers his own body and blood to bring us forgiveness of sin (Mat. 26:26-28).
– Jesus promises to prepare a place for us in the house of his heavenly Father (John 14:1-7).
– Jesus gives us so much, in this life and in the next.
So, why shouldn’t we be excited?
Even better than our fellow Christians, the atheists of the world can show us how to be a stronger church and better Christians, and to be loyal disciples – people who follow Jesus faithfully and invite others to do the same. 1) We can each be clearer about the Christian mission and message. 2) We can make efforts to connect Christ more closely to real life. 3) We can offer more thoughtful answers to life’s difficult questions. And 4) We can take the Bible seriously and invite others to follow Jesus.
The light of Christ has come into our lives, and we should never hide it from others. Jesus has called each of us to follow him, and to “fish for people” (Mat. 4:19). We are being complacent, and perhaps even cruel, if we don’t share our excitement about Jesus and the life of discipleship with others. So, ultimately, we will be stronger and better Christians and Christ’s church if we follow these simple yet critical steps. And that’s what atheists can teach Christians – if only we would earnestly listen.