June 26, 2016
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Atheists are all the rage these days. Seems like I have a conversation with one at least once a week lately. Most of us have seen them displayed at Barnes and Noble, caught a morning-show interview with them or heard them referenced at Starbucks between friends grateful to have discovered champions for their skepticism.
• Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion has sold 3 million copies, spending a year on the New York Times Best Seller List.
• Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great became a number-one New York Times Best Seller.
• Bill Maher’s film Religulous was the highest-grossing documentary of 2008.
New Atheism is hot right now … and lucrative. It also has encouraged a common-ground ecumenical response. Muslims, Christians and Jews are standing together.
In the litany of interfaith responses, Rabbi David Wolpe’s tends to stand out. He’s known as a beloved but controversial leader in the Jewish community. Named Newsweek’s “#1 Pulpit Rabbi in America,” he’s spiced up his temple by holding Friday night “rock ’n’ roll” services, and even at one point inviting Will and Grace producer David Kohan to preach and questioning the historicity of the exodus … at the Passover service!
Wolpe’s book Why Faith Matters is his response to the new atheism movement. He feels their discussion of religion has completely missed the positive benefits of religion. He cites the apologetic power of religion’s gifts to society: interdependent community, a sense of social responsibility, a commitment to charity, believing in something larger than oneself, promoting healthy personal boundaries and submitting to a “higher power.”
In essence, these are God’s ways of demonstrating God’s self through the followers of God. We have the power to be a strong argument. To be apologetics of virtue
It isn’t the first time a beloved and controversial Jewish rabbi has lent his insights to Christians.
In a story of inadequacy relatable to many clergy, Wolpe tells of being called to the hospital bedside of an elderly woman to offer final prayers for the dying. He took her comatose hand but felt like a fraud. Who was he to shepherd a soul to the edge of the next world? Dutifully, he proceeded to pray familiar words anyway, letting their power carry him.
Talking to his wife about it afterward, Wolpe confessed his feelings of inadequacy. “You’re right,” she said. “You’re unworthy. Anyone would be unworthy doing such a thing. That’s okay, though. It’s not you doing it. It’s being done through you.”
Wolpe writes, “That was a pivotal moment for me. Suddenly it became clear to me that we bring light into this world not as a source but as a prism — it comes through us. As electricity requires a conduit, so spirit moves through human beings to touch others in crucial moments. As soon as I stepped out of my own way, the prayer felt real. I could believe in blessing when I felt that it did not depend on me.”
Novelist Edith Wharton put the same idea this way: “There are two ways of spreading light, to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
What does this have to do with Galatians 5? Galatians 5 raises the light or prism, candle or mirror question. “But there’s no light reference here,” one might say. But really there is.
The fruits of the flesh or the Spirit are set up in a larger context in which Paul is dealing with the influence of Judaizers in Galatia who insist on adding law to grace. Reminding the Galatians of their freedom from the law, he asks them to use the holiness encouraged by the law for each other. In living by the Spirit, they are to be slaves to one another, embodying the grand intent of the law, which is neighbor-loving.
The “fruit” or the result of living in the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and so on, and these latter qualities are the very things that mirror the light of God into the lives of others.
We could rename these qualities the flames of the Spirit. Not the fruit of the Spirit, but the flames of the Spirit. We can’t be the candle. Christ is the candle. But, we can be — we must be — the mirrors.
Most light metaphors fall into two categories. One, Christ is likened to light — “the people living in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9 or see John 1). And two, his followers are light — “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5). The metaphor of a candle and a mirror encompasses both.
As our reading today says, Christ has set us free, and ultimately he is the light of the world that we all reflect. But when God changes us — when we are led by the Spirit and produce fruit demonstrating that — then we reflect that light in the same way that a mirror does candlelight.
The reading clearly recognizes that God’s Spirit is the one doing work in us. There’s no doubt who the light source is. God’s Spirit is the candle.
That means the response of the Christian is to polish up the mirror. Clean up the smudges and the water spots. Make it a bright reflector of God.
Can we be mirrors in darkness?
The most powerful apologetic for Christianity is the changed lives of its adherents and the way they love their neighbors through their transformation.
We’re God’s first option on evangelism. It’s a consistent biblical theme:
• Genesis 12: All nations will be blessed by Abraham’s family obeying God.
• Matthew 5:16: Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your God.
• 1 Peter 2:12: Live lives that silence the false accusations of pagans.
Plato was once told that a man in the city had been spreading slanderous charges against him. Plato’s answer: “I will live in such a way that no one will believe what he says.”
What if we took his example, the scriptural example, and Wolpe’s virtue apologetic seriously and committed ourselves to winning the hearts of God’s skeptics by living better lives right in front of them?
Wolpe tells of a season where he lost his faith, bolstered by the writings of an “old atheist,” Bertrand Russell. A graphic Holocaust documentary introduced him to “evil and a world without God’s protection.” Russell became a logical, witty guide to a world that was merely the product of blind forces.
Wolpe was enamored with the philosopher until he began reading biographical works that showed how depraved Russell’s life was: four broken marriages, alienated from his children, unabashed about his infidelity.
Despite Russell’s brilliant mind, the fruit of his philosophy made a far more compelling argument. Claiming “it was better to be Russell’s reader than his wife or child,” Wolpe stumbled back into faith through the apologetic of virtue.
Haven’t we all met the Christian who’s so compelling to us that his or her presence inspires our faith? And haven’t we also met that sister or brother whose words, actions or attitudes cause us to literally doubt our faith?
There’s no problem with the Candle.
It’s the mirror that needs polishing.
We aren’t the source of light, but the prism. Not the candle, but the mirror.
As long as there are neighbors and family members who don’t know Jesus, and as long as a new crop of atheists find God-bashing a fashionable and profitable thing to do, let’s just reflect Christ. Let us be the virtuous apologetic.
One last thing. Our reading today states something very plainly – Faith in Christ is not a long list of laws, but it doesn’t mean we are free to do whatever we want either. We are called to live in love – to live unselfishly. Though we are indeed saved by faith, not deeds – our deeds should show our faith in the ways we treat one another.
Let us pray.
Father God, although some aspects of the Mosaic Law was fulfilled and thus no longer necessary for our salvation, because of faith in Christ we are now brought that salvation. However, help us to know that it does not mean that we stand able to do anything our hearts desire. Living in faith and following Your Son means we must still behave in the example He put forth and by believing in Him, we are called to better love and serve Him when we serve our fellow mankind.
Dear Lord helps each of us here today to be a better mirror of Christ in the world. Let us be filled with courage to live in the fruit of the Spirit which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; for against such things there is no law. We ask this, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.