Should Progressive Christians Share their Faith? When Is it Appropriate?

When it comes to faith sharing there are two poles. At one end of the spectrum is the witness who is absolutely sure of himself. He is anchored in certitudes and has the truth nailed down. You want answers, he has them. He is bold and brass, if not arrogant and obtrusive. Most people who would read this article are embarrassed by this kind of Christian witness.

At the other end is the Christian who is very hesitant to saying anything at all about her faith. “It is the life I live that matters,” she says, which, of course, is true, but shouldn’t disciples of Jesus want to say something about Jesus, in whom and through whom they have found a transformative path?

We don’t want to be obtrusive or offensive, and we certainly don’t want to be identified with the Bible thumpers who use Scripture as a weapon. So many of us in the progressive camp tend to be silent.

Will Willimon who teaches at Duke Divinity School and was a former UMC Bishop, in a recent piece for The Christian Century tells about helping out at a soup kitchen. The local missionary directing the work told Willimon and his co-workers, “Keep your church talk to yourself. We’re here to help people in need.” I can understand what he would say that. He probably had to deal with his share of Bible thumpers.

Willimon in his cynical kind of way assured him that he had nothing to fear, because “we mainline Protestants would rather hand out a bowl of soup than risk telling someone the truth. It’s less disruptive than to testify to that person that we wouldn’t be serving him or her if Jesus had not put us here.”

I don’t think progressives fear being disruptive, but we do fear being disruptive in the wrong kind of way. My contention is that there is a time and place to share our faith, particularly in the context of relationships.

Greg Carey who teaches New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, said recently in an article for the Huffington Post that he can’t recall ever meeting a person who reasoned his or her way to faith. He hails the work that theological and pastoral apologists do promoting Christianity by means of rational arguments. Their writings help readers imagine faith in more reasonable ways, which is what I try to do in my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls). But such writings are most helpful to people who are already Christians; they help them develop a more reasonable faith. And faith should be reasonable— not provable, not without mystery and paradox, but reasonable. Christian faith should resonate with common sense and align with what we know in our hearts to be true. But rarely is one introduced into Christian faith by reason alone.

The Gospel text of John 1:29–42 speaks to the importance of sharing our faith in the context of relationships.

The text begins with John the Baptist introducing two of his disciples to Jesus. John has a very different function in John’s Gospel than in the Synoptics. He does not preach and perform a baptism of repentance as he does in all three of the Synoptics, nor does he denounce the religious establishment and pronounce imminent judgment as he does in Matthew and Luke. In John’s Gospel he is simply a voice crying in the wilderness with one purpose: to bear witness to Jesus. “He came as a witness to testify to the light . . . He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 1:8). That was John’s function: to bear witness to the light.

The true light, says the Gospel, “enlightens everyone” (1:9), but we need people who have seen and experienced the light to bear witness to the light in order to validate the light and point others to the light.

When two of John’s disciples hear him bearing witness to the light they follow Jesus. When Jesus sees them following, he turns and asks, “What are you looking for?” This is a question loaded with meaning.

What is true of all Scripture is quite obvious in John’s Gospel—namely, words, phrases, and ideas have double or even multiple meanings. The literal meaning is generally the lowest level of meaning in spiritual texts.

The question, “What are you looking for?” is intended to be understood on a deeper existential and spiritual level. What are we all looking for? Meaning, purpose, love, a sense of belonging, significant relationships? Or maybe we’ve turned down a less noble path in quest of prestige, power, or a life of luxury. It’s a probing question that seeks to uncover our hidden motives, desires, and dreams. What do we really want in life?

They ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” The word for staying in the Greek is the same word used in other places for discipleship. For example, it is used in John 15:4 where the Gospel writer develops the imagery of the grapevine to talk about discipleship. In that passage Jesus says, “Abide in me (stay, dwell, remain) in me, as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides (stays) in the vine, neither can you unless you abide (stay) in me.”

The spiritual and existential question here is, “Where do you derive your source of meaning, strength, and courage. From what source do your draw your energy, vitality, and passion?

We might ask ourselves: Do we live our lives as disciples of Jesus in such a way that others might be curious about where our passion and commitment to truth, goodness, beauty, and justice comes from?

Jesus responds by saying, “Come and see.” In John’s Gospel “coming to Jesus” is a phrase that describes faith. “Seeing” is always seeing with spiritual perception and discernment; seeing things as they really are, not as we are with all our cultural conditioning and socialized biases.

Jesus is inviting them into relationship, to abide with him and learn from him what a deep, authentic relationship and friendship with God feels like, looks like, and is like.

As disciples of Jesus we need to learn how to say in creative ways to others, “Come and See.” Come walk with us, journey with us, stay with us, and see if the way of Jesus embodies what is good and true. Come and see if the truth in the path of Jesus does not align with your deepest self?

We learn what faith is by walking with the faithful who embody the light of Christ. They often become our mentors and we learn much from them.

Andrew brings his brother Simon to Jesus. When Jesus sees Simon he says, “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” Both the Aramaic and the Greek mean “Rock.” Jesus gives Peter a nickname. Clarence Jordan in his cotton patch version calls him Rock. The renaming is a reflection of what Jesus envisions Peter becoming through his mentorship (his discipleship to Jesus). Jesus is saying: You are Peter—impetuous, brass, arrogant, quickly agitated, prone to failure, but you will become a rock—rock-like in character and faithfulness in my kingdom.

This is what mentors do for us. They bring out our best. They are instrumental in shaping us. We learn how to be real, true, and good through our relationship with them.

In the movie 42, The Jackie Robinson Story, Branch Rickey plays this role. He frequently encourages and empowers Jackie. When Branch Rickey first called Jackie in and invited him to be part of their organization, he was forthright and upfront about the kind of abuse that would be heaped upon him. Jackie’s first response was: “Do you want a player that doesn’t have the guts to fight back?”

Branch Rickey answered, “No, I want a player that has the guts not to fight back. People aren’t going to like this. They’re going to do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse, and they will hear only yours. Follow a blow with a blow and they will say the Negro lost his temper, that the Negro doesn’t belong. Your enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his own low ground. We win with hitting, running, fielding. We win if the world is convinced of two things, that you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. Like our Savior, you have to have the guts to turn the other cheek. Can you do it?”

Rickey was issuing a call, dare we say, a divine call? Jackie responded, “You give me a uniform. You give me a number on my back. And I’ll give you the guts.”

In one scene, Jackie almost gives in to the desire to fight back. He retreats inside the doorway to the locker room in Philadelphia; he smashes his bat against the wall. Rickey meets him there. Rickey tells Jackie that he can’t fight, he can’t quit, there are too many people who believe in him and respect him.

Jackie asks Rickey if he knows what its like. Rickey says, “No, you’re the one. You’re the one living in the wilderness—40 days—all of it, only you.”

Jackie retorts, “There’s not a thing I can do about it.” Rickie declares, “Of course there is, you can get out there and hit and get on base and score. You can win the game for us. Everybody needs you. You are medicine, Jack.”

As the Dodgers take the field, Rickey puts his arm around Jackie and asks, “Who is playing first?” Jackie replies, “I’m going to need a new bat.” He goes back onto the field and ends up scoring the winning run.

We need people in our lives who believe in us, and we need to be such people for others, finding ways to tell them and assure them that we believe in them. It is in the context of these kinds of relationships that children of God are empowered to become who they are.

We might ask ourselves: In what ways do I need to be more intentional in inviting others—family members, friends, co-workers—to come and see? How might I wet their appetite for the light made visible in Jesus of Nazareth? What can I do to invite others to discover the beauty, power, goodness, and love I have discovered by walking in the way of Jesus and being part of his faith community?

* * * * * * * *

Chuck is the author of “Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith.” Read the Introduction and first part of chapter one at http://www.amazon.com/Being-Progressive-Christian-Chuck-Queen/dp/1938514386

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